By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's military will not stand in the way of a peace deal between the government and leftist rebels, but would defeat the guerrillas on the battlefield if an accord fell through, the head of the armed forces said on Wednesday.
"We will not be an obstacle to peace," General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, a 35-year military veteran who supports the talks, told Reuters in his Bogota office.
"Though, if for any unfortunate reason the conflict doesn't end, the military will continue our mission. We will move ahead in the process of neutralizing these terrorist groups."
The government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, has been in peace talks with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for nearly two years, in an effort to end a war that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions over the past five decades.
Negotiations, which have so far produced initial agreements on three of five agenda points - land reform, political participation for rebels and an end to the illegal drugs trade - are proceeding in Havana, Cuba, amid continued clashes between the two sides.
Military leaders have generally shied away from the media since the peace process began, usually only commenting on the talks to reiterate that their offensive against the guerrillas will continue until an agreement is signed.
It is possible for the armed forces to defeat the FARC militarily, Rodriguez said, though "in a guerrilla warfare conflict it's very difficult to give an exact date."
Though the FARC's troop numbers have been more than halved from their height of 20,000 at the end of the 1990s, the military has struggled to decisively defeat the disparate rebel fronts, which operate in hard-to-reach rural areas, including dense and sparsely-inhabited jungle in the country's south.
Active members of the military, acting as consultants to the government at the talks, met face-to-face with rebel leaders for the first time just two weeks ago.
Critics of the negotiations, led by hard-line ex-president Alvaro Uribe, now a senator, said sitting down with the FARC was a humiliation for the military and that a recent spike in rebel attacks shows that government troops are discouraged.
Rodriguez disputed that conclusion.
"The armed forces haven't ever been discouraged, like they've said," he said. "We have not let our guard down. Everyday we are reporting results which maintain the security and tranquility of Colombians."
Reparations for the war's victims are currently being discussed at the talks and negotiators will also have to reach agreement on the reintegration of rebel combatants before a final deal can be inked.
The FARC, thought to have about 8,000 fighters, has been damaged in the last decade by a U.S.-backed offensive which included an increase in the use of air power.
But the rebels still regularly mount attacks, especially on oil infrastructure, bombing pipelines and holding up crude oil transport for days.
A smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which also targets the energy sector, announced preliminary talks with the government earlier this summer.
Both the FARC and the ELN are listed by the United States and European Union as terrorist groups.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Paul Simao)