HAVANA Colombia's leftist FARC rebel leader and U.S. President Barack Obama attended the same baseball game in Cuba on Tuesday, underscoring a message of regional cooperation that Obama took on his historic visit to the Communist-led country.
FARC negotiator Pastor Alape confirmed the attendance of a contingent of 40 members and said the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and a Cuban team was a "symbol of peace." A Reuters reporter also saw the rebels, who are in Havana for peace talks with the Colombian government.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader Rodrigo Londono looked relaxed wearing a baseball cap, blue Cuban team sweat jacket and sunglasses, and appeared to be enjoying the game with his fellow rebels.
The representatives are believed to be nearing an agreement after three years of talks, although the two sides are unlikely to meet a self-imposed March 23 deadline to sign a peace deal.
The U.S. State Department has designated FARC as a foreign terrorist organization and repeatedly accused it of drug trafficking.
In a speech on Tuesday directly addressing the Cuban people, Obama noted that the United States and Cuba had been on the different side of many conflicts in the Americas "but today, Americans and Cubans are sitting together at the negotiating table and we are helping the Colombian people resolve the civil war that has dragged on for decades." [nL2N16U0BR]
U.S. Secretary of John Kerry met on Monday with the FARC negotiators and Colombian government officials at the talks.
After the meeting, the FARC issued a statement thanking the United States for "assisting at difficult moments in finding ways forward toward mutual understanding between the parties."
The FARC said the U.S. role had led to a sector of Colombian society beginning "to perceive the United States as a friend of a political solution" to the conflict, versus a military one.
The meeting highlighted the Obama administration's goal of using a new policy toward Cuba to improve its standing in the region and overcome long-running disputes.
The Colombian conflict is the last and longest guerrilla conflict in Latin America, leaving a trail of over 220,000 dead since it began in the early 1960s.
The United States has been an ally of the Colombian government over the years and has played an important role in militarily reducing the FARC presence in the country.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)
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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2016 07:31 AM