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Colombia’s largest insurgent group and President Alvaro Uribe are close to reaching an accord to exchange dozens of jailed rebels for hostages held by the guerrillas, but experts are sceptical that a swap will lead to peace talks.

Commanders from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, which has been fighting to overthrow the state for four decades, on Monday offered a conditional ceasefire if a zone is demilitarised for 45 days.

Within hours, Mr Uribe authorised his peace commissioner to seek a deal with the Farc to establish a temporary safe haven in the south of Colombia to facilitate a prisoner swap, as well as study a “peace process”.

Farc rebels, who have been repelled into the jungle by a US-backed counter-insurgency effort, are holding hostage dozens of Colombians, including Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and three US military contractors.

Alvaro Leyva, a politician who is attempting to broker a prisoner exchange, said a swap could open the door to peace talks. “If we achieve the first goal, there’s a good chance of advancing to the second stage,” he said on Tuesday.

The bright political development reveals a marked softening in the positions of both the guerrillas and the government, experts said.

Mr Uribe, elected in 2002 and re-elected last May, has never ruled out peace talks, but he has generally favoured tackling the rebels militarily. The Farc, meanwhile, has until now rejected any talks with Mr Uribe.

Mr Uribe said on Tuesday that he himself would be willing to meet with the Farc’s leadership if that would help the search for a peace agreement.

Jorge Restrepo, director of Cerac, a think-tank in Bogotá, said a prisoner swap had been made more likely because the Farc has been militarily weakened and because Mr Uribe is under pressure from Europe.

“The Farc has received a pounding, and they understand that the pendulum in Colombian public opinion is moving towards peace,” Mr Restrepo said. “But with Uribe this has a lot to do with pressure from Europe, he needs to show that he is not only interested in negotiations with the paramilitaries.”

Mr Uribe has overseen a demobilisation process with paramilitary groups which has been criticised by human rights groups for being too lenient on warlords with close ties to drugs trafficking.

Mr Restrepo cautioned, however, that peace talks are still a way off: “It’s moving fast and it looks like there is going to be a prisoner exchange. But I’m not very optimistic on peace talks, the positions are still very far apart.”

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