As FARC ceasefire begins, Colombian military and politicians stay on the offensive
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As FARC ceasefire begins, Colombian military and politicians stay on the offensive

An indefinite unilateral ceasefire announced by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last week went into effect on December 20 — less than a day after a last-hour show of force from the rebels left five soldiers dead, according to the Colombian army. While unilateral pauses by the rebel group have occurred since the start of peace talks with the government began at the end of 2012, this is the first time in the 50-year history of the Colombian conflict that the FARC has halted hostilities for an indefinite period.

The move, praised by the European Union and the United Nations, was also welcomed by  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who said in a press release that it was a “good start” to the process of de-escalation of hostilities. However, Santos rejected calls by the guerrillas for regional and international groups like the International Red Cross and the United Nations to monitor the ceasefire, saying the government itself will oversee the implementation of the FARC’s decision.

Read more: Colombian president rejects FARC ceasefire

The FARC has placed another condition on its ceasefire. On the group’s website, the rebels claimed that the pause in hostilities would end “only if it is found that our guerrilla structures have been attacked by the public force.”

It is likely, however, that military operations against the guerrillas will continue. Wilson Chawez, the commander of the brigade attacked Friday, vowed to continue operations against the “terrorists,” according to AFP.

“We’re going to pursue our military operations. It’s a unilateral ceasefire. We’re an army that remains on the offensive,” he said.

Santos has publicly rejected calls over the last two years to implement a bilateral ceasefire with the rebels, saying that military operations will continue until a final deal is reached. According to the president, this allows the government to continue fulfilling its “irrevocable constitutional duty to guarantee and protect the rights of Colombians,” though it has been well-documented by NGOs and international bodies that public forces are one of the principal violators of the human rights of Colombians.

In September, the president announced on Twitter that he had ordered a general to “intensify” the military offensive against the FARC guerrillas after seven police officers were killed, allegedly by the rebels and a neo-paramilitary group, in the northern part of the country.

And on the day of the FARC ceasefire announcement, Santos said that “the strength of the military offensive will continue until we put an end to this conflict.”

Perhaps, if nothing else, the FARC’s decision will provide incentive for Santos and the Colombian military to show more restraint, though the comments of the commander of the recently-attacked brigade seem to suggest otherwise.

Delegations of conflict victims visiting the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, have repeatedly called on the government to agree to a bilateral ceasefire. In the wake of the capture of a Colombian general by the FARC — which resulted in suspension of the talks until a resolution was reached and the general was released — many on the Colombian left again urged the president to de-escalate hostilities.

Read more: In wake of Colombian general’s kidnapping, more questions than answers

Political pressure from the right, however, and past experiences with only partial fulfillment of ceasefires have kept Santos from signing off on such an agreement. Hardline ex-President Álvaro Uribe, once an ally of Santos, has been a strong critic of the peace talks and accused Santos of handing over the country to “narco-terrorists.” Uribe has taken the opposing view of the left and victims’ delegations, using every opportunity of FARC-government confrontation not to urge a ceasefire, but instead to argue against negotiating until the rebels halt all hostilities.

But, as Uribe’s handpicked former presidential candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga demonstrated after the FARC’s announcement, the right appears unwilling to accept any type of concession from the rebels.

“The FARC announcement is a new media show that seeks to weaken our armed forces,” Zuluaga tweeted.

But if the FARC fighters can show restraint — as they sometimes have in the past — and hold their ceasefire, even if attacked by Colombia’s armed forces, it may be easier to overcome opposition to the peace talks, and the chances of an eventual bilateral ceasefire and a final peace agreement will be greatly increased.