Colombian ex President Betancur, who sought peace with rebels, dies

By Helen Murphy

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, who attempted to broker peace with leftist rebels during his administration, died on Friday at the age of 95, the Fundacion Santa Fe de Bogota hospital said.

The hospital did not provide a cause of death, but media reports said he had been admitted with kidney problems.

Betancur, a member of the Conservative party who served from 1982 to 1986 – one of Colombia’s bloodiest periods – had sought a negotiated peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and M-19 rebels.

Talks with M-19 ended abruptly in November 1985, when the rebel group stormed the Supreme Court and took hundreds of hostages, including the justices. About 100 people died in the siege when the military raided the building, 12 of whom were magistrates

“I deeply regret the death of a great friend, a great Colombian, former President Belisario Betancur. His legacy in politics, in our history, in culture is an example for all future generations. Our condolences to your family and friends,” President Ivan Duque said on Twitter.

Betancur steered Colombia clear of the worst effects of world recession in the early 1980s, but ended his presidency amid controversy over his handling of the country’s then 30-year-old guerrilla war.

When Betancur, a lawyer and former diplomat, won the presidency in 1982 after several unsuccessful bids, his main political aim was to end Colombia’s guerrilla war.

His image as a liberal-minded peace-seeker was marred in the last months of his administration by criticism of his tactics in ending the Supreme Court siege.

Gustavo Petro, a one-time M-19 rebel who later served as mayor of Bogota and challenged Duque in second round of voting this year for the presidency, said he was 22 and in the Plaza de Bolívar the day Betancur took office.

“I raised a banner that said ‘peace’ and I was very excited. When his government ended I was imprisoned and tortured; peace had been nothing but a drawing on the wall,” Petro said on Twitter. “Now Belisario has died.”

Peace with the FARC was finally agreed in late 2016, while the M-19 demobilized in 1990. The ELN is still an active guerrilla army.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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