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The Star Online: World Updates

Progress with FARC slower than hoped for: Colombia's Santos


PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Nearly a year after starting peace talks with left-wing FARC guerrillas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Saturday that negotiations have not progressed as quickly as he had hoped.

The government is in discussions with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end a 50-year struggle that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions.

Last week the two sides ended the 15th round of negotiations in Havana, with each blaming the other for the slow pace. For the first time they failed to issue a joint statement on the progress.

"The discussions have advanced, but not at the speed I would have liked. I thought that in one year we could have finished the agenda points we agreed upon, but that hasn't happened," Santos told presidents and heads of state at the 23rd Ibero-American summit in Panama City.

"But we are clearing up points, we are advancing," he added.

Talks have gone on since November 2012 with only a partial agreement on agrarian reform, including land for poor farmers and policies to tackle rural poverty and inequality, which the guerrillas have asked for since the conflict started in 1964.

The two sides are currently negotiating the rebels' future political participation, with the government requesting they disarm and form a political party.

They have yet to discuss the remaining four points on the agenda, including issues relating to reparations for victims and the drug trade, as well as how to cease hostilities and implement peace accords.

The government had hoped to conclude the process by November, the start of Colombia's national election cycle, which concludes with presidential elections next May.

Santos, who is expected to run for a second term, has staked his legacy on ending the Andean nation's conflict.

(Writing by Lomi Kriel; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Freed Lebanese, Turkish hostages fly home after deal


BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Two kidnapped Turkish pilots arrived in Istanbul after leaving Lebanon on Saturday and nine Lebanese hostages freed from Syria landed in Beirut, completing a hostage exchange after months of uncertainty.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greeted the Turkish Airlines pilots on the tarmac as they disembarked from a Qatar Airways jet and were met with cheers from family members.

The Lebanese, seized by Syrian rebels in May 2012, were freed and left northern Syria for Turkey a day earlier as part of the deal negotiated by Qatari mediators.

At Beirut International Airport, friends and relatives ululated and cheered as the men walked onto the tarmac.

"The situation is worse than you can imagine, we paid a heavy price," said one of the hostages, who was walking with a cane, apparently from an injury sustained in captivity.

The hostages' release may in fact be a three-way deal, Lebanese security sources said. They said the release of the Lebanese was originally contingent on the Syrian government's freeing of prisoners in state detention centres.

An opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the government had released dozens of prisoners over the past few days as part of that agreement.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the release underscored Turkey's diplomatic clout.

"The success of this process, which has been conducted under the instructions of our prime minister, proves once again the regional importance of Turkey," Davutoglu said in a Twitter post before the pilots landed in Istanbul.

The kidnappings highlight how complex and regionalised Syria's 2-1/2-year conflict has become. The civil war has acquired sectarian dimensions that have pulled in its neighbours.

Sunni Muslim countries such as Turkey largely back the Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Shi'ite Iran backs Assad, as does the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is Shi'ite and supported by Tehran. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.


Security sources said the agreement required that the Lebanese hostages not leave Turkey until the Turkish ambassador in Beirut had seen the Turkish pilots, who had been kidnapped in retaliation for the snatching of the Lebanese.

One of the Turkish hostages said their captors treated them respectfully and did not use violence against them.

"We weren't treated badly, but the first 25 days were difficult. We didn't see daylight," Murat Agca told reporters.

The Lebanese hostages' families say they were religious pilgrims, but their kidnappers accused them of belonging to Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Assad's forces in Syria.

The Turkish pilots were kidnapped by the family of one of the Lebanese hostages in order to press the Turkish government to help secure the group's release. Turkey has some influence with the Syrian opposition, having offered refuge and support to the rebels fighting Assad.

Abbas al-Shuaab, one of the freed Lebanese hostages, wrapped a Hezbollah flag from the crowd around his shoulders.

"They accused me of being in Hezbollah and I was not in Hezbollah," he said. "But from now on, I consider myself a soldier and fighter for (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah."

(Additional reporting by Alex Dziadosz Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Alison Williams and Peter Cooney)

Arab states urge Saudi to keep U.N. Security Council seat


UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Arab Group at the United Nations urged Saudi Arabia on Saturday to reconsider its decision to renounce a rotating seat on the Security Council to protest the 15-nation body's failure to end the war in Syria and act on other Middle East issues.

"We hope that they (Saudi Arabia), which are amongst the blessed who represent the Arab and Islamic world at this important and historical stage, specifically for the Middle East region ... maintain their membership in the Security Council," the Arab Group's statement said.

The group appealed to the kingdom to "continue their brave role in defending our issues specifically at the rostrum of the Security Council."

The Arab Group includes Arab U.N. member states with the exception of Syria, whose membership was suspended when it was frozen out of the Arab League.

Diplomats said Washington would like the Saudis to keep the council seat.

No country has ever been elected to the Security Council and not taken the seat. As an incoming Security Council member, Saudi Arabia would have taken up its council seat on January 1 for a two-year term ending on December 31, 2015.

When it announced its decision on Friday to refuse its newly won council seat, the Saudi kingdom condemned what it called international double standards on the Middle East and demanded reforms in the Security Council, which has been at odds on ways to end the fighting in Syria.

Unlike in the past, when Riyadh's frustration was mostly directed at Russia and China, it is now also aimed at Washington, its oldest international ally, which has pursued policies since the Arab Spring that Saudi rulers have bitterly opposed.

Citing the Security Council's failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, take steps to end Syria's civil war and stop nuclear proliferation in the region, Riyadh said the body had instead perpetuated conflicts and grievances.

The Saudis have expressed disappointment at U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to push Israel to end settlement building in the West Bank and agree to a Palestinian state. The Obama administration has blocked the Palestinians' push for full U.N. membership and vetoed a resolution condemning settlements.


Western U.N. diplomats, suggested, however, that Riyadh's frustration with the United States had more to do with Syria and Iran than U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process, which has been relatively consistent for decades.

They said the recent U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, which appeared to break a long-standing impasse on the council over Syria's 2-1/2 year civil war, might have led the Saudis to conclude Washington is coming around to Russia's position that it might be better to let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in place.

Blood-drenched images of Syria's civil war, in which more than 100,000 have died and in which millions have been displaced, are aired daily on Saudi news and the kingdom has backed the rebels with arms and money. Assad's ally Russia continues to support Assad's government with weapons.

Saudi anger boiled over after Assad escaped U.S.-led military strikes in response to an August 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus by agreeing to give up his chemical arsenal.

Saudi concerns that the U.S. decision to avoid striking Syria demonstrated weakness were underscored by signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadh fears may lead to a "grand bargain" on Iran's nuclear program that leaves Gulf Arab states at a disadvantage.

Earlier this week, the United States praised Iran's approach to negotiations with six world powers on its nuclear program during two-day talks in Geneva. Last month, Obama spoke on the telephone with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, the first contact between U.S. and Iranian heads of government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

If the Saudis insist on giving up their seat, the Asia Group will likely find another Arab candidate from the Middle East to take it. Any replacement candidate would likely need to be elected with a two-thirds' majority in the U.N. General Assembly.


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