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Bogota and FARC agree on landmine removal

Bogota has signed an agreement with FARC rebels to remove landmines as part of efforts towards establishing peace. Landmines in Colombia's conflict areas have killed more than 11,000 people in the last 15 years.

Colombian army and rebel FARC leaders met for the first time on Saturday in the Cuban capital, Havana, agreeing to remove landmines in conflict areas.

"The government and the FARC have agreed to ask (Norwegian People's Aid) to lead and coordinate a cleanup and decontamination operation: for mines in rural areas as part of the armed conflict," Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Benitez read out from a statement by the negotiating parties.

Bogota's leading negotiator Humberto de la Calle (pictured above, center) said, "Our goal is to put an end to the conflict… so the demining proposal is a first step, but a giant one towards peace." FARC rebels and the government were to begin with the demining process immediately.

President Juan Manuel Santos called the deal "extremely important" and said the agreement signified that the country was on its way "to ending a conflict that has bled us dry for over 50 years." Santos earlier rejected the option of a bilateral truce without a definitive peace deal, although FARC had declared a unilateral ceasefire beginning December 20 last year.

Rebel leader Ivan Marquez also expressed optimism with the breakthrough on landmines, saying that negotiators had begun to work on issues like the final bilateral ceasefire and a mutual commitment to laying down arms.

Colombia's conflict began in 1964, the year of the founding of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). More than 200,000 people have died since then, with 11,043 people losing their lives in the last 15 years because of exploding landmines. More than 4,000 victims were civilians.

Rebels and the government began talks in November 2012, but a final deal on peace is yet to be reached. A new round of talks is scheduled to begin on March 17, with Cuba and Norway acting as guarantors. Negotiators are expected to discuss war crimes committed during the insurgency,

repatriation of victims

, the surrender of weapons and integrating rebels into normal life.

mg/rc (AFP, AP)

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