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Victims of Colombia's armed conflict testify


Alfonso Mora (L-R), Nelly Gonzales, Leyner Palacios, Janete Bautista, Jorge Eliecer Vasquez and Constanza Turbay, victims of the Colombian armed conflict, attend a conference for peace talks between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, in Havana August 16, 2014. The banner reads, "Dialogue of peace". Photo - Reuters

Victims of the decades-old conflict pitting FARC rebels against government forces testified at peace talks Saturday, pushing for "truth" to form the foundation of any accord.

The 12 victims, some of whom came face-to-face with representatives of the perpetrators for the first time, testified during a closed-door session that lasted nearly nine hours.

"During the day, we agreed that truth is the basis for peace," they said in a statement presented to the press by six of the victims.

They also said they stood against an "impunity exchange" in which military members and guerrillas who committed crimes during the half-century conflict would be granted immunity from punishment as a condition for peace.

Unprecedented step

A woman whose disabled son was kidnapped and murdered by soldiers was among a group of witnesses to testify at the peace talks.

"This is an unprecedented step of immense significance," President Juan Manuel Santos said in Bogota ahead of the testimony, the first time victims of Colombia's five-decade armed conflict have addressed the talks.

The closed-door hearing began at 9:00 am (1300 GMT) in a residential complex in Havana that normally hosts visiting foreign dignitaries.

Reparations for victims is one of the most sensitive items on a six-point agenda for the talks in the Cuban capital because each side blames the other for violence that has killed 220,000 people and caused more than five million others to flee their homes.

The dozen witnesses -- the first of a group of 60 who will testify -- include people who have lost loved ones in some of the worst massacres that have rocked Colombia in recent years.

The massacres were committed by leftist rebels, police and soldiers, far-right paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, all related to the broader conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC, also known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

One of those who testified was Leyner Palacios, leader of a group of people whose relatives were slaughtered in the so-called Bojaya Massacre in 2002.

In the western town of Bojaya, "79 people who sought refuge in a church died. The FARC launched a cylinder bomb amid a clash with a paramilitary group," said the committee in charge of choosing witnesses.

Fellow witness Luz Marina Bernal's 26-year-old intellectually disabled son was kidnapped and murdered in 2008 by soldiers who portrayed him afterward as a rebel killed in combat.

The Colombian government and the FARC have reached deals on three points of the six-point peace agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebels and fighting the drug trafficking that has fueled the conflict.

The other points left to address are disarmament and the mechanism by which the final peace deal will be adopted.

Founded in 1964, the FARC today has about 8,000 fighters and is the largest of the guerrilla groups waging Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.

Santos has made peace deals with the FARC and the National Liberation Army, another rebel group, his top political priority.

He took the oath of office this month for a second four-year term vowing to finally end the conflict, after an election campaign widely viewed as a referendum on the peace process.

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