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Colombia peace worries after rebels offer to arm protesters


A government negotiator expressed concern Monday over Colombia's peace process, after a FARC guerrilla unit offered to supply a rural protest with fighters and weapons.

The controversy was touched off Monday by the FARC's Magdalena Medio bloc when it issued a statement aligning itself with protests by farm workers in a border region with Venezuela.

"You can count on our ranks, on our arms, on our combatants," the FARC statement said.

The statement warned that the peace process would be "impossible...if the Colombian people continue to be violently treated."

Carlos Villegas, one of five government representatives at peace talks in Havana, slammed the statement in comments to Colombian broadcaster Caracol.

"It dismays me to hear statements by the FARC suggesting they are ready to provide arms and to accompany protests with armed men," he said.

"We have to send a message to Colombian society that we are all ready for reconciliation so that the armed conflict can come to an end," he said.

FARC negotiators in Havana have so far made no comment about the statement.

It follows a flare-up of fighting over the weekend, with 27 soldiers and rebels killed in clashes during a three day period from Saturday to Monday in various parts of the country.

Unrest among farm workers over coca eradication efforts in the northeastern Catatumbo region has resulted in four deaths over the past month and a half.

The government has complained for weeks that the FARC has infiltrated the protesters, who are also demanding that an area be set aside where farmworkers would have a form of self-government.

The land issues are currently on the agenda in the talks in Havana, which are scheduled to resume on Sunday after a break.