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Dec 18, 4:27 PM EST

Colombia's government rebuffs rebel truce


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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Colombia's government on Thursday rebuffed a unilateral truce declared by the country's largest rebel group, saying the guerrillas' conditions are unacceptable until a peace deal is reached.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on Wednesday said it would lay down its weapons for an unlimited period to bolster peace talks that have been held in Cuba for the past two years.

But Latin America's oldest and strongest insurgency also said it would call off the cease-fire if its units were attacked by Colombia's U.S.-backed military, a condition that appears to doom the gesture due to the government's longstanding refusal to enter a bilateral truce out of fear it would give the rebels an opportunity to rearm.

President Juan Manuel Santos said he couldn't accept the rebels' demand the truce be verified by several Latin American nations and by the international Red Cross. Such outside verification would have to wait until a deal to end hostilities is reached, he said in a statement.

Still, Santos said he values the rebels' gesture as a way to begin de-escalating a half-century-old conflict that still claims hundreds of civilian lives every year and is fueled by the smuggling of cocaine and other criminal activity.

It's unclear where the government's response leaves the cease-fire, which is set to take effect midnight Saturday.

Although the rebel army known as the FARC has declared temporary cease-fires before, around Christmas and elections, this is the first time since the 1980s it has offered to indefinitely lay down its weapons nationwide.

The FARC's announcement in Havana came on the same day that the Cuban and U.S. governments announced they would restore diplomatic ties after five decades of U.S embargo, indicating major progress toward ending another Cold War conflict. Analysts saw the timing as a coincidence.

"The FARC proposal responds to a totally different, Colombian, dynamic," said Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

The gesture comes as both sides try to recommit themselves to talks that were almost derailed following the capture last month of an army general, the highest-ranking officer ever held by the FARC.

Santos briefly suspended negotiations, but the crisis was overcome after the FARC freed the general two weeks later.

Also Thursday, the FARC apologized for its role in a 2002 massacre that left at least 79 people dead and many more injured. In the midst of a battle with a paramilitary group, the FARC attacked a church where civilians were taking refuge. A FARC representative asked for forgiveness in Havana before a group of victims of the attack.

Santos responded that such apologies are what he expects from the peace process, and said they will help the country leave behind the pain of the war.

The two sides already have reached agreements on agrarian reform, political participation for the FARC and how to jointly combat illicit drugs in what was long the world's largest cocaine producer.

But some of the thorniest issues remain unresolved, including how the FARC would lay down its arms and whether commanders would face prosecution for atrocities and drug trafficking.

Thousands of Colombians, led by still-powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, marched over the weekend in major cities to reject any amnesty that would allow rebel leaders to escape justice for killings, kidnappings and drug trafficking.

Uribe, whose conservative government launched the military offensive credited with pushing the FARC deeper into the jungles, on Wednesday called the guerrillas' conditioning of its cease-fire on the government's withholding of its own firepower a form of blackmail.

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