Havana: Colombia`s largest guerrilla army temporarily walked away from peace talks with the government on Saturday over President Juan Manuel Santos` refusal to agree to modify the constitution if a peace pact is struck.
It is the first time either side has broken off negotiations that began last year in Havana, other than for planned recesses. But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, stopped short of pulling out of the peace process entirely.
The move comes after Santos announced yesterday night that he was asking Congress to consider a bill that would let a public referendum on an eventual peace deal coincide with congressional or presidential elections next year. His proposal for the referendum falls short of the constitutional convention sought by the FARC.
The government and rebels have long been at odds on the issue, and Santos` decision prompted the rebels to call a time-out to regroup.
"The FARC has decided to take a pause from the discussion table to focus exclusively on analysing the reach of the government proposal, without detriment to the internal consultation it must perform as an organisation," the rebels said in a statement read to reporters by Jorge Torres Victoria, a high-ranking leader who goes by the nom de guerre Pablo Catatumbo.
The FARC did not say how long it would stay away from the negotiations. Colombian government negotiators did not immediately comment.
"It is perfectly legitimate and valid for (the FARC) to study this proposal," Santos said today at a public event in the northwestern department of Choco, "but time passes and the Colombian people`s patience has a limit, and we have to keep moving forward in the talks."
Yesterday, the president presented to Congress a bill to lift the prohibition on referendums being held in the same vote as presidential or congressional elections. Santos is expected to run for a second term in elections next May, and legislative elections are in March.
Santos ally Simon Gaviria of the Liberal Party called it a cost-saving measure, saying that holding a referendum separately would cost the nation USD 93.6 million. He said he was not concerned by the FARC`s suspension of talks.
"It seems to us that, without a doubt, this is a process of negotiation. ... It does not worry us, nor do we think we have to take the FARC into consideration to make these changes (to electoral rules)."