Monday 24 July 2017

'We are so delighted to have the President of Ireland here' - Michael D Higgins' travelled by Blackhawk to FARC rebel army in Colombia jungle

President Higgins at the Military air base as he waited for cloud cover to clear
President Higgins at the Military air base as he waited for cloud cover to clear

Ryan Nugent

President Michael D Higgins was left waiting at a military base outside the city of Medellin due to heavy fog on Sunday night - as the Colombian air force made attempts to take him to visit the notorious FARC rebel army in the jungle.

President Higgins was the first Head of State to visit a fully demobilised FARC zone - with 128 ex-combatants located at the edge of the jungle in Anorí.

However, dense fog meant that the take-off of the Blackhawk's was delayed for a number of hours before the trip was eventually made.

In an area which was heavily armed by Colombian authorities, President Higgins shook hands and spoke with senior FARC commander, Pastor Alape upon his arrival in the jungle.

Pastor Alape is understood to have been a key member of the FARC negotiation team during meetings with the Colombian Government in Havana, Cuba.

He has been a member of the FARC since the 1980s and is believed to have had a senior role in the trafficking of cocaine in North Central America.

Alape said that the FARC drew inspiration from the IRA and the Peace Process in the North when going to the negotiation table.

"Their process has given us a lot of strength and perhaps it is a model for the giving up of arms. We've had a lot of exchanges of ideas and exchanges of experience and the Irish model has been very important for us in this process," he said.

"This is why we are so delighted to have the President of Ireland here," he added.

In a rousing speech, President Higgins said that the agreement made is just the beginning in Colombia and the whole of Ireland would support them all the way.

"Why I said it is a privilege to be here is to be witnessing these very necessary steps on a journey towards not just peace but all the benefits that lie beyond peace," President Higgins said.

"Ireland is proud to have played it's own small part in relation to the peace process, but it is a participation that we intend to continue.

"When you come out of a long conflict like this, as we would know in Northern Ireland, may I just say this, when the documents have been signed between the people who are at the top of organisations, it is always a proud ceremonial moment, but it is really only the beginning," he added.

Just over two months ago, Colombia's largest and richest rebel army and the Colombian Government reached an agreement on a peace process for a conflict that has lasted more than five decades and claimed close to 250,000 lives.

The FARC, smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary groups and and a vast number of criminal gangs have all been involved in this conflict.

As part of the Colombian Peace Agreement,  the 7,000 FARC members are undergoing a demobilisation phase and are being set up in 26 different rural assembly zones across the country -  though are currently still armed.

The disarming phase is due to begin in the coming weeks, while the removal of landmines around FARC areas is also ongoing.

A large presence of Colombian special forces was organised for the safety of the President's visit, while two members of the garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) were brought over from Dublin in recent days when the visit became apparent.

The demobilisation process includes access to education, health and psychological - with an estimated 70pc of FARC members illiterate.

No figures have been made available for the number of child FARC members.

At the foot of each FARC zone is a tripartite monitoring mission consisting of six United Nations observers, and four observers each from the Colombian Government and the FARC.

Contacts have been on and off between Ireland and the Colombian Government in recent years to provide their expertise based on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo met with President Higgins on Sunday.

Mr Jaramillo said he had been in contact with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness a number of times and met him most recently three years ago in Bogota for a "practical and sensible" discussion on what worked and what didn't during the Peace Process in the North.

FARC members along with the other factions involved in the conflict have been accused of massacres along with rape, kidnap and torture.

One of the most important aspects of the peace process is justice for the victims on issues such as war crimes and most forms of serious human rights violations.

A Special Peace Tribunal will be in place to deal with such issues - with those who have committed such crimes afforded the opportunity to give the full truth of their crimes to avoid regular prison and instead be sentenced with serious restrictions.

The tribunal process is expected to be a long and expensive one - with Ireland committing €3m over the next five years in support, as part of the EU Trust Fund. Further funding to the UN will also be provided by the Irish Government.

President Higgins is due to give a keynote address on the Peace Agreement at the National University of Colombia on Monday afternoon.

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