Colombia to miss March 23 peace deadline

Havana (AFP) - Colombia will miss a March 23 deadline for a peace accord between the government and FARC rebels, after the guerrillas agreed Thursday with the president that more time is needed.

Speaking a day after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he would not sign a "bad deal" just to meet the self-imposed deadline, FARC peace negotiator Joaquin Gomez said the rebels agreed an extension was needed to end the half-century conflict.

"We agree with what (the president) said, that conditions aren't in place for the 23rd," Gomez said. "We agree that we should set another date by consensus."

The government and the FARC have been holding talks in the Cuban capital Havana since November 2012, seeking to end a grinding, complex conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and uprooted 6.6 million.

Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez announced the deadline with much fanfare on September 23, when they met for the first time for the signing of a landmark deal on post-conflict justice, part of the hoped-for overall peace accord.

But as the date approaches the two sides have increasingly raised doubts about the feasibility of signing a final accord on schedule.

Expectations about the date had intensified after US President Barack Obama announced plans to travel to Cuba from March 20-22.

Peace negotiators have made several key advances in recent months, and have now reached deals on four of their six agenda items: justice for victims, land reform, political participation for ex-rebels and fighting the drug trafficking that has fueled the conflict in the world's largest cocaine-producing country.

The unsettled issues are disarmament and how to ratify the final accord.

The United Nations has agreed to monitor the end of the conflict once a final deal is in place.

- No decrease in violence -

Santos, who has staked his presidency on the peace process, has worked hard to shed the country's image of drugs and violence and recast it as a Latin American success story.

He trumpeted the latest economic growth figure Thursday -- 3.1 percent for 2015.

"More reasons to keep up the optimism," he wrote on Twitter. "#IBelieveInColombia."

But the figure was the second consecutive year of slowdown from the 4.9-percent growth registered in 2013.

On the ground in Colombia, hostilities have almost entirely halted under a unilateral ceasefire observed by the FARC since July -- although a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has not joined the peace process and continues periodic attacks.

The Red Cross warned that violence continues unabated in Colombia despite recent advances in the peace process.

"As they await the end of the armed conflict, many Colombians still don't feel the impact of the progress at the negotiations in Havana. They continue suffering multiple forms of violence," said Christoph Harnisch, the aid group's director in Colombia.

The Red Cross said that although massacres and battles have subsided, it registered the same level of violence in 2015 as in previous years, including kidnappings, murders, death threats, rapes and landmine explosions.

The organization urged Colombia to make a priority of finding the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in the conflict -- a "humanitarian tragedy," said Red Cross official Deborah Schibler.

Colombia has 45,000 unsolved missing persons cases directly attributed to the war -- and the real figure could be even higher, she said, since families sometimes fear reprisals from guerrilla or paramilitary forces if they report their loved ones missing.

The Colombian conflict has drawn in multiple leftist rebel groups, right-wing death squads and drug traffickers over the years, with devastating spillover effects that have made the country among the most violent in the world.