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Colombian peace talks recess with scant progress, election looms

Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez (C) reads a document as (FARC) members Jesus Santrich
Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez (C) reads a document as (FARC) members Jesus Santrich

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels wound up a 13th round of peace negotiations on Wednesday, bickering over how to end the conflict and making little visible progress over key issues despite nine months of talks.

While the discussion was supposed to focus on the political participation of Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), it was overshadowed by a proposed referendum on any deal that was submitted by President Juan Manuel Santos to congress last week and scheduled to occur during national elections next year.

The FARC called a pause in the negotiations after Santos made the referendum proposal, which it strongly opposes.

The FARC has insisted a constituent assembly be formed to incorporate the content of the peace deals into the country´s constitution. The government has rejected that demand.

The talks recess every few weeks, then resume, with the next round set to begin September 9. They are being facilitated by Cuba and Norway and hosted in Havana even as fighting continues in Colombia.

Earlier in the talks the two sides settled on a partial accord on agrarian reform. They still have before them reparations to war victims, the drug trade and then implementing the agreement.

The rebels' lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, read a statement at the close of the round of negotiations that was largely dedicated to denouncing the referendum and defending a constituent assembly.

He said the referendum issue had diverted the talks.

"Though there are concrete advances, we are inviting the government to take up again the second point of the agenda, which corresponds to the current rounds," he said.

'CONTINUE TO MAKE PROGRESS'

The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, for his part defended the referendum.

"It is our responsibility to foresee possible future scenarios and, as President Santos has said, in this way pave the way toward peace," he said.

Both sides did say they had exchanged proposals on how to bring the FARC out of the jungle and into the political process, without indicating that any agreements were reached.

"We continue to make progress on the forging of agreements on the second point of the conversations, political participation," the joint statement said without elaborating.

The Colombian government wants a peace agreement by November when a national electoral cycle begins, concluding with a presidential vote in May, 2014, a deadline both parties and observers now say will not be met.

Santos, who is expected to run for a second term, has staked his legacy on bringing an end to the last guerilla conflict in Latin America, which has raged since 1964, as well as a smaller rebel insurgency by the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The FARC has an estimated 8,000 members and the ELN about 3,000.

A source close to the talks said that amid the political rhetoric and bullets progress was being made.

"Each side has a public face and another at the talks, where they are very serious and working hard," he said, asking not to be identified.

"They have a long ways to go but are making progress and appear committed to the process," he added.

At the same time the source expressed concern that elections could derail the talks if Colombians tired of them.

"The key will be what the polls say as the elections proceed," he said.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)

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