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Colombia FARC pause talks to study referendum proposal

HAVANA/BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist FARC rebels declared a pause in peace talks on Friday to consider a bill proposed by President Juan Manuel Santos that would call a for a popular vote on any agreements that would bring an end to the five-decade conflict.

This is the first interruption in talks that began in November and may indicate that rebel negotiators are willing to contemplate a shift from their original demand that an assembly to be formed to incorporate into the constitution any accords reached in Havana-based talks. But it also could mean the rebels are seeking to block the proposal by disrupting the talks.

Santos, who bet his political legacy on bringing peace to the Andean nation, on Thursday sent a bill to Congress that calls for a referendum on any peace accord during national elections in either March or May next year.

"The FARC has decided to pause the discussions at the table, to focus exclusively on analyzing the implications of the government's proposal," Pablo Catatumbo, one of the lead negotiators of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said in a statement.

The FARC said it still considers the constituent assembly, which would be tasked with enshrining the tenets of the peace accords in the nation's constitution, as the best way to reach a fair and binding peace treaty.

Colombians are desperate to see an end to the war that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 1964. Santos is also keen to negotiate peace with the National Liberation Army, a smaller rebel group known as the ELN. He has said he wants the FARC peace accord by November.

In his final year of a four-year term, Santos has ruled out a constituent assembly and said the Colombian people must support any deals reached before an end to the war can be declared.

"The FARC has left the negotiating table to study the proposal and it's legitimate and valid that it should, but time is passing and the patience of the Colombian people has a limit," said Santos during a speech in Choco province, on Colombia's Pacific coast.

The FARC has battled a dozen governments since it began as an agrarian struggle against rural inequality. Even while it has been severely weakened in the last 10 years by a heavy U.S.-backed offensive, it remains a formidable threat to the government and civilian population.

More than three dozen FARC commanders are in Havana working through a five-point agenda that includes agrarian reform, reparation to victims, stemming the illegal drug trade, an end to the conflict and the FARC's inclusion in the political system.

The disruption in talks - already painstakingly slow - comes on the heels of several comments from the FARC in recent days that appeared to show irritation with comments from Santos.

In a recent interview, Santos told Reuters that the rebel leadership could face jail terms if peace is achieved. He also said FARC negotiators would need to return to Colombia's jungle and face capture or a battle death if talks collapse.

(Reporting by Cuba newsroom; Writing by Helen Murphy and Peter Murphy; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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