BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia*s government took its biggest step yet toward an eventual end to hostilities in a half-century conflict by ordering an immediate halt to aerial bombings of guerrilla camps belonging to the nation*s largest rebel group.
President Juan Manuel Santos, in a nationally televised address Tuesday night, said he made the decision in virtue of progress that is being made in negotiations started in 2012 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the rebels' adherence to a unilateral ceasefire it declared in December.
The president said the ban on aerial bombings would initially last a month but could be extended if the FARC continues to keep its guns down. He said aerial raids against the National Liberation Army would continue uninterrupted until such time the nation*s second-largest group decided to join the peace process.
The decision, which had been rumored for weeks, removes from the battlefield one of the government*s most-successful tools in its fight against the rebels. Since 2008, three members of the FARC's ruling secretariat and countless rebel troops have been killed as a result of surprise jungle raids involving the use of smart bombs.
Conservative opponents said the move is likely to demoralize Colombian troops and give valuable breathing room to rebels who've seen their ranks shrink by more than half to fewer than 6,000 combatants during a decade-long, U.S.-backed assault.
Santos in Tuesday*s address urged his opponents to make their criticisms heard in a non-partisan commission he said he was establishing to advise him on how to proceed in the final, delicate stage of talks.
"I want to hear a lot of voices to help me make the right decision," Santos said.
The government and the FARC have already reached agreements on land reform, participation in politics for ex-rebels and a joint strategy to curb drug trafficking.
In the latest round of talks that ended Saturday in Havana, Cuba the two sides also announced a joint effort to remove unexploded land mines.
But several tough issues remain, the thorniest of which is rebel negotiators' demand they avoid any jail time for atrocities allegedly committed by troops under their command.