Colombian government proposes to meet rebel leaders

The Colombian government has issued a second offer in a month to meet with leftist rebel leaders to discuss a possible exchange of jailed rebels for hostages, including three Americans. Government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo on Thursday proposed to hold the talks with commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, at a school near the village of Pradera, 270 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of Bogota, Restrepo's office said in a statement.

The military will guarantee the security of any FARC negotiators who travel to the talks, he said, adding that any meetings should last a maximum of 10 days. There was no immediate reaction from the FARC, a 13,000-strong force funded largely by drug trafficking that has been battling to topple the government since 1964. The conflict has killed more than 3,000 people every year.

The rebels have repeatedly ruled out any meeting unless authorities grant them a sizable safe haven, including all of Pradera and the surrounding area, a request Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has rejected. Last month, Restrepo proposed talks in the town of Aures, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Pradera, but the FARC turned down the offer.

The FARC is holding dozens of hostages, including politicians, military personnel and three U.S. defense department contractors, that it wants to exchange for imprisoned guerrillas. The American contractors, Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, were captured on Feb. 13, 2003, after their small plane crashed in a rebel stronghold in southern Colombia while on an anti-drug mission.

Former Huila state governor Jaime Lozada, whose wife is being held by the FARC, expressed hope Thursday that the two sides will finally "sit down face to face and look each other in the eyes so we can start a dialogue to put an end to the suffering", AP reports.

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