Colombia FARC rebels start demobilization process

Bogota (AFP) - Colombian FARC rebels gathered in demobilization zones on Tuesday to start a historic disarmament process to end Latin America's last major armed conflict, authorities said.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are due to disband with UN supervision under a peace deal with the government after 52 years of conflict.

Meanwhile, the country's last active rebel group, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), was taking the final steps towards its own peace talks with the government.

The government's top delegate for the peace process, Sergio Jaramillo, said a total of 6,300 FARC fighters were due to reach the disarmament zones by Wednesday, and thousands had already arrived.

"What is happening is really most extraordinary. This is the peace process in action," he told a news conference.

He said there had been no major incidents in what the government has called the FARC's "last march."

Fighters traveled by boat, canoe, bus, truck and on foot as they headed to 26 zones where they will disarm and eventually re-enter civilian life.

But a monitoring group warned that only one of the camps was fully ready.

"The preparation of the disarmament zones is at 30 to 35 percent," said Leon Valencia, head of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

The ELN, meanwhile, said Monday the government had begun releasing certain detainees to clear the way for peace talks.

In return, the ELN is to release a former lawmaker it is holding hostage, Odin Sanchez, on Thursday.

The government is due simultaneously to release two other imprisoned ELN members and grant them a pardon.

The ELN announced Tuesday that it was also holding another hostage, a Colombian soldier previously reported missing by the army, whom the rebel force seized last week.

It said it was willing to release him, too.

ELN negotiators are gathered in the Ecuadoran capital Quito, where talks with the government are scheduled to start on February 7.

After last year's contested peace accord with the Marxist FARC, President Juan Manuel Santos says he wants a deal with the ELN to seal a "complete peace" in Colombia.

The Colombian conflict grew out of a crushed uprising over land rights in the 1960s.

It has killed more than 260,000 people and left 60,000 missing, according to authorities.

The conflict has drawn in not only the Colombian armed forces, the FARC and the ELN, but also drug gangs, right-wing paramilitaries and other leftist rebel groups that have since disbanded.