Top rebel commanders join Colombian peace talks in Cuba

By Rosa Tania Valdés HAVANA (Reuters) - High-ranking guerrilla commanders joined the Colombian peace talks taking place in Cuba on Friday, injecting a sense of urgency into negotiations seeking to end Latin America's longest-running war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) called the presence of top commanders "political artillery," and they appeared before reporters in the latest round of talks with the government of recently re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos. Among the rebel leaders joining the talks were those going by the noms-de-guerre Pastor Alape and Carlos Antonio Lozada, who have moved from the battlefield to the negotiating table. Their real names are Felix Muñoz and Luis Losada, respectively. Even with the talks ongoing, the war has continued with the FARC and government forces clashing periodically. "This is our guerrilla command for normalization, which will explore paths toward an agreement with officers of the army, the navy, the air force and the national police," said Ivan Marquez, the rebel commander who normally represents the FARC at the talks. "This will allow us to reach an armistice that the victims are demanding and the nation is clamoring for," said Marquez, who was surrounded by 18 rebel leaders before they went behind closed doors. The two sides have been meeting in Havana for nearly two years to seek to end a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since 1964. They have reached agreement on three of the five planks of the talks: cooperation on eradicating the illicit drug trade; agricultural reform; and the rebels' legal participation in politics once a comprehensive agreement is reached. With most of the rebel command now involved, the two sides will engage in the other two planks simultaneously: reparations for war victims and the mechanics of ending the conflict. Should they reach all five agreements, the two sides would enter a sixth and final phase to create a text that would be put before the voters for ratification. Other members of the FARC general staff who joined the talks in Cuba were Isaias Trujillo, Rubin Morro, Pacho Chino, Walter Mendoza. Also present in Havana is Henry Castellanos Garzon, known as Romana, the chief of the FARC's military wing. He is one of the most sought-after rebel fighters because of his part in mass kidnappings in the 1990s when dozens of people paid millions of pesos in ransoms. The government agreed that the presence of more rebel leaders would propel the talks further, according to one source close to the government delegation who requested anonymity because only delegation leader Humberto de la Calle is authorized to speak to reporters. "We have almost the entire, high-ranking leadership of the guerrillas here in Cuba, making decisions," the government source said. (Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdez; additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)