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Colombia releases 16 FARC members as Havana talks go on

Colombia has announced the release of 16 FARC members pardoned in peace negotiations. The government and guerrillas are moving toward a deal to end a half-century conflict.

On Thursday, Colombia's Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP) announced the release of 16 of 30 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) pardoned by President Juan Manuel Santos in late November. The government released the nine men and seven women as part of a goodwill gesture to reciprocate for a unilateral ceasefire declared by FARC in July, according to the OACP. The men and women were serving prison terms for the Colombian crime of rebellion.

The unilateral ceasefire has fostered "a reduction in violence and advances in the process," the OACP reported in a statement.

Under the terms of their release from two Bogota prisons, the men and women must promise not to rejoin FARC, which welcomed the move as a "positive gesture" but called on the government to also free 80 other members with health problems. On Monday, Justice Minister Yesid Reyes had said the other 14 pardoned men and women would be released this month, but did not address the rest.

The OACP has also authorized four of the released prisoners to travel to Cuba, which is hosting talks between the government and FARC, to participate in the process and gain insight for their future roles as "constructors and promoters of peace." The rest will receive assistance from the state reintegration agency.

'Substantial hurdles'

Colombia's war has left more than 220,000 people dead, at least one million displaced and about 45,000 disappeared since 1964. Over the years, it has drawn in right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and several nominally leftist rebel groups, including FARC - the oldest and largest remaining.

Peace talks in Havana have made several key advances in recent months, and the two sides have set a deadline of late March to sign a final accord, though FARC has warned that "substantial hurdles" remain. A rival rebel group, the National Liberation Army, has held exploratory talks with the government but has yet to join the peace process.

Watch video 01:50

Colombia, FARC rebels sign key deal on victims (16.12.2015)

Negotiators announced Tuesday that they had asked the United Nations to monitor the eventual end of the conflict and oversee the disarmament of FARC. In December, negotiators for the government and FARC reached an agreement on reparations for the war's victims.

mkg/kms (EFE, AFP, dpa)

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