* Ceasefire starts at midnight, to run through Jan. 20
* Three previous peace processes failed
* Government wants agreement in matter of months
HAVANA/BOGOTA, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist rebels
called a two-month unilateral ceasefire on Monday, the first
truce in more than a decade, as delicate peace talks began in
Cuba to try to end a half century of war.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' government
reiterated, however, that there would be no halt to military
operations until a final peace deal is signed with the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
The rebel group said it would halt all offensive military
operations and acts of sabotage against infrastructure beginning
at midnight on Monday and running through Jan. 20.
"This decision by the FARC is a decisive contribution to
strengthen the climate of understanding needed so the parties
... can achieve the purpose desired by all Colombians," lead
rebel negotiator Ivan Marquez said, standing outside a
convention center for the start of talks in Havana.
The gesture is a sign that the rebels may be keen to push
talks to a successful end - something that was thrown into doubt
by long, drawn-out speeches by its leadership calling for major
changes to Colombia's political system.
The warring sides arrived at the talks in black luxury cars
and will meet almost daily until negotiations end.
A crush of journalists surrounded the bearded, bespectacled
Marquez who stood with other FARC delegates, including Dutch
national Tanja Nijmeijer in Havana's plushest neighborhood.
Some FARC members wore caps and T-shirts of Simon Trinidad,
an official guerrilla negotiator who is in prison in the United
States. Others shouted "Long Live the Army of the People."
The head of the Colombian government delegation, Humberto de
la Calle, smiled and waved as he entered but made no comment.
Speaking from Bogota, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos
Pinzon doubted the sincerity of the FARC's ceasefire pledge.
"Security forces have the constitutional duty to pursue all
criminals that have violated the constitution," he said.
"Hopefully they keep their promise, but history shows that this
terrorist group never complies with anything."
Colombia's war has dragged on for 50 years, taking thousands
of lives, displacing millions more and causing damage to
infrastructure in Latin America's longest running insurgency.
A failure of the latest peace process would mean years of
more fighting and further blight on the reputation of a country
eager for foreign investment and regional clout, yet which has
been unable to resolve its most serious domestic problem.
Residents in western Cauca province, one of Colombia's most
war-ravaged areas, celebrated the FARC ceasefire.
"We hope it's not just two months, we hope that it's
definitive," Orlando Ramos, a resident in Miranda, Cauca, said
on local television.
'GRAIN OF SALT'
The announcement by the FARC could be a breather for oil and
mining companies, the target of many FARC attacks in recent
months as the group sought to hobble Santos' main source of
The war costs Latin America's fourth-largest economy 1 to 2
percentage points of gross domestic product every year,
according to the government, and makes large tracts of arable
land unsafe due to combat or landmines.
"A peace agreement with the FARC could entice more sectors
and investors into Colombia," said Eurasia Group's Latin America
analyst Heather Berkman.
"The opportunities for agriculture production in particular
could reshape the country's export sector, particularly as both
small-scale and larger farmers could produce on land long
off-limits due to security troubles."
Santos wants an agreement within nine months, while the
rebels say the process will likely take longer. The two sides
face plenty of thorny issues in their five-point agenda, which
will begin with rural development.
Previous peace attempts have failed, but both the government
and the FARC have expressed optimism that this time might be
Not everyone is so upbeat though.
"You have to take this announcement with a grain of salt,"
Felix Lafaurie, head of Colombia's National Federation of Cattle
Ranchers, said on Colombian radio.
"I hope this is going to be a sign of the FARC's good will
and not that they'll then take swipes on substantive issues."
The vast majority of Colombians support the peace process,
although they think it will ultimately fail. Even so, the talks
are the biggest gamble in Santos' political career and their
success or failure may decide the outcome of the next election
The conflict dates back to 1964 when the FARC emerged as a
communist agrarian movement intent on overturning Colombia's
long history of social inequality. During the 1990s, the FARC
controlled large parts of the country.
In the early 2000s, billions of dollars in U.S. aid,
improved intelligence and increased mobility began to turn the
tide of the war in favor of the government.
The FARC has lost at least half a dozen top commanders and
been pushed back into remote jungle hideouts in recent years,
though the rebels are far from a spent force and still wage
attacks on security forces and economic infrastructure.
Violence was among the reasons previous peace talks failed.
In the last attempt from 1999 to 2002, the government broke off
negotiations after the FARC hijacked an airplane.
"The FARC have heard the voice of many Colombians, that
rightly have been skeptical about its willingness to reach an
end to the war, given the past," said Juan Fernando Cristo, a
senator for the Liberal Party.
"The decision for a unilateral truce should fill us with
optimism about what's coming at the negotiating table."