In a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday, Pope Francis offered to help mediate at the slow-paced peace negotiations between the Colombian government and Latin America’s oldest insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
During the private audience at the Vatican, the pontiff said he was “willing to assume any role necessary” to ensure that the Santos government reaches a final peace accord. The talks have hit a bumpy road in recent months after a series of armed skirmishes.
You are the person I have prayed for the most in this peace process,” the pope reportedly told Santos
“You are the person I have prayed for the most in this peace process,” the Argentinean-born pope reportedly told Santos.
“That’s why I came to ask for your help,” the Colombian president responded.
The talks, which are being held in Havana, hit their biggest obstacle since they began in November 2012 when a rebel attack in April left 10 soldiers dead and later led to retaliations by Colombian military forces.
In May, FARC officials announced they were calling off a five-month-old unilateral ceasefire after an air strike killed 26 of their members in a raid, but agreed to continue holding talks in Cuba.
Even though the two sides earlier this month reached a preliminary agreement to organize a joint Truth Commission to look into the crimes committed by government forces and rebels during the more than 50-year insurgency, negotiations have been tense.
The pope’s offer and the dialogue between the pontiff and the Colombian president were confirmed by Santos, who met with reporters at the Vatican following the 20-minute private meeting.
“We only spoke about possibilities because [any mediation] would have to be agreed upon by both sides,” Santos said.
“We spoke about the victims and how Colombia has become the first country to put its victims at the center of a final resolution to this conflict. We also spoke about how we can respect their rights and seek justice while at the same time securing peace,” he said.
Pope Francis reportedly put the Vatican diplomats at the negotiators’ disposal, and told Santos not to give up forging a country “that can learn to forgive,” the president said.
The pontiff also promised to bring forward his planned visit to Colombia – although no final date has been scheduled – if peace is reached.
Pope Francis has been widely regarded as a key player in some of the most difficult international conflicts
Since his appointment, Pope Francis has been widely regarded as a key player in some of the most difficult international conflicts.
Last year, the pope helped bring together the United States and Cuba to begin discussing the normalization of relations between the two countries.
He has also been recognized for trying to resolve the ongoing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis by visiting the Holy Land and praying with Christians, Muslims and Jews at the Vatican.
Francis’ offer to Santos is seen as fresh international support for the Colombian government as it struggles to reach middle-ground with the FARC, despite the escalation in violence over the past few months.
Colombia is divided over whether peace can ever be reached with the rebels.
A new round of talks is scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Havana.
ELN leader killed in raid
The Colombian army killed one of the top leaders of the National Liberation Army (ELN) during a raid on Sunday in the Antioquía department, in the northeast of the country.
José Amín “Marquitos” Hernández Manrique, who died in the military attack, was known as the commander of the ELN’s Darío Martínez Front and a member of the insurgency’s national leadership committee.
Hernández Manrique was in charge of the ELN’s operations in both Antioquía and Bolívar departments, according to Colombian military and police officials.
National Police director General Rodolfo Palomino said that the ELN commander was involved in extortion and was connected to illegal mining activities in the area. He called his death “a relief” for Antioquía.
“This front managed the main sources of revenue for the ELN in this region,” Palomino said.
Army Commander General Jaime Lasprilla also explained that Hernández Manrique was one of the masterminds behind the April 1999 hijacking of an Avianca Airlines jet, in which 46 people on board were later held hostage. The last passenger was released the following year.
Up until now, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made fruitless attempts to enter peace negotiations with the ELN.
The insurgency was organized about 50 years ago, soon after the FARC, and is made up of about 2,000 members.