Colombia FARC rebels seek Pope's backing in peace bid

The head of the FARC guerrilla Timoleon Jimenez, aka Timochenko speaks during a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (out of frame) in Havana on September 23, 2015 (AFP Photo/Luis Acosta) (AFP/File)

Havana (AFP) - Colombia's FARC leftist rebel force called on Sunday for Pope Francis's support to prevent other armed groups from disrupting its efforts to seal a peace deal with the government.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the country's government say they are close to a deal to end a half-century conflict.

But the FARC Marxist guerrillas say remnants of right-wing paramilitary groups that were previously key players in the conflict have been attacking them in a "criminal offensive" aiming to undermine the peace initiative.

"There are serious storm threats on the horizon, which threaten to knock down this grand effort by all the Colombian people," the FARC's top commander Timoleon Jimenez wrote in an open letter to the Vatican published online.

"Their terrible actions coincide with plotting by political players that benefit from the war, which stir up passions and intend to turn public opinion against the agreements that have been reached."

He called on the Catholic Church to take a "leading role" and asked Francis to openly support efforts to seal a peace deal.

Right-wing paramilitary groups fought the leftist guerrillas for decades in the drawn-out territorial dispute, trying to drive them from their bases in the countryside.

The government officially disbanded the paramilitary groups a decade ago, but in many cases their remnants have transformed into drug gangs in the world's largest cocaine-producing country.

The FARC says paramilitary death squads will come after former rebels if they disarm, posing an obstacle to the peace agreement.

The half-century conflict in Colombia has claimed the lives of more than 260,000 people.

After more than three years of peace talks in the Cuban capital Havana, the government and FARC say they are close to signing a deal.

But they have yet to agree on disarmament and how to ratify the final accord.