Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia rebel Rodrigo Granda on Farc's peace position

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Media captionRodrigo Granda: "We represent the forgotten Colombia, it is not true we are weakened"

The Colombian government and Farc rebels are to begin their first direct negotiations in a decade next month in Norway. Speaking to the BBC, senior rebel Rodrigo Granda expressed his optimism about the talks but insisted the Farc had not been defeated militarily.

News that the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) were eyeing a new peace process emerged last month.

The rebels' confirmation that contacts were under way was accompanied by a video showing a group of young guerrillas rapping in defiant tone about the talks.

"The bourgeois hunted us, but couldn't defeat us," the young Marxist insurgents in Che Guevara T-shirts sang.

Image caption President Santos insists there will be no ceasefire until final agreement is reached

They mocked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for turning to communist Cuba for help in ending Latin America's longest running conflict.

During a rare interview in Havana this week, Rodrigo Granda was similarly defiant but also upbeat.

Often called the Farc's "foreign minister", he will be at the negotiating table when formal peace talks with the government begin in Oslo in October before moving to Havana.

Mr Granda told the BBC he was "supremely optimistic" about the process, saying the Farc wanted an end to the bloodshed.

But he insisted the insurgency was "growing and expanding" despite a military crackdown that has seen several senior guerrillas killed in recent years.

Colombia's military estimates the rebels' ranks have been slashed by more than half, to 8,000.

However, there has been a surge in Farc attacks in recent months, and Mr Granda laughed off the suggestion their acceptance of dialogue was disguised surrender.

"That's a mistake. We are strong militarily and politically. We have taken some blows, that's true. This is a war. But who can that war possibly suit?" he said.

According to Mr Granda, President Santos sent word that he wanted to explore peace talks, shortly after taking office two years ago.

The Farc take that as proof the government cannot resolve the conflict solely with military might.

Colombian government officials and senior Farc members began secret exploratory talks in Havana in February.

'Defensive war'

During the five decades of a conflict that has pitted rebel groups against the armed forces and paramilitary fighters, some three million people have been displaced from their land and thousands killed or injured.

Atrocities have been committed on all sides, but Mr Granda expressed no remorse for the Farc's part in the violence.

"We have not caused any suffering. Ours is a defensive war. We did not provoke it," he told the BBC, repeatedly.

"The state is to blame for everything that happened in this period. Yes, there has been collateral damage. That's unavoidable. But we did not aim to hurt anyone," he insisted

That "collateral damage" Rodrigo Granda referred to has included thousands of hostages.

The Farc said earlier this year that it would end kidnapping for ransom, but human rights groups dispute the rebels are keeping their word.

Meanwhile, Mr Granda still defends the practice as an entirely justifiable tax on the rich.

"We don't call it kidnap, we call it economic detention. Who brought the war to our people? It was the powerful. Who has the money? The powerful," he said.

"The people have the right - the duty - to take money from those who started this war, in order to buy arms, food and medicine for our military."

But Clara Rojas, who was herself held hostage by the Farc, says the rebels do not just kidnap the rich.

Ms Rojas, who heads Pais Libre, a foundation campaigning against kidnappings, says 170 kidnappings have been recorded so far this year, 17 attributed to the Farc.

"It is quite clear that the Farc has kidnapped and extorted money from people from all sectors of society, including the most vulnerable," Ms Rojas said.

She says children and peasants are often forcibly recruited to swell the ranks of the rebels.

"We need to know the truth about the painful events in Colombia, during this conflict, for the sake of peace and reconciliation. We hope that the Farc will recognise its responsibility," Ms Rojas said.

'Issue of sovereignty'

Many Farc members, including Rodrigo Granda, are wanted for multiple criminal offences in Colombia, although a recent law has paved the way for lighter sentences.

The issue of amnesties is likely to come up at the peace table. So will the "wanted" notices pending against senior Farc members in the US.

Image caption For relatives of people missing, believed kidnapped, the pain continues

"It's shameful that Colombia has to extradite its nationals. But who made those rules? Changed the constitution?" Mr Granda asked, revealing that the Farc would resist extradition as part of any peace deal.

"Just as laws were made, they can be unmade. We believe our nationals should not be extradited. It's an issue of sovereignty. So we will have to change articles in the constitution, for this," he said.

The last attempt at peace failed in 2002.

Alvaro Uribe, who was elected president later that year, steadfastly refused to countenance talks and stepped up military operations against the rebels.

President Santos, who as Mr Uribe's defence minister played a key role in implementing this tough policy, has made it clear there will be no ceasefire until final agreement is reached.

He has also signalled that he does not want the negotiations to drag on, talking of "months, not years".

But both sides have insisted they want peace. Negotiating how to get there will begin on 8 October.

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