BOGOTA - Colombia's government and Marxist rebels will sit down this week to start peace talks aimed at ending nearly half a century of conflict after a 10-year military offensive against the guerrillas failed to deliver a coup de grace.

President Juan Manuel Santos is attempting what many other leaders have tried but failed to do in the past - reach a negotiated deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and bring peace to Latin America's No. 4 economy.

The former defense minister has seen his popularity slide over the last year with former President Alvaro Uribe, for long a close ally, leading criticism that Santos has been too soft on the FARC. But a peace agreement before the next election in 2014 would all but guarantee Santos a second term.

While security has improved by leaps and bounds since a US-backed offensive against FARC rebels and drug barons began a decade ago, the security forces have been unable to land a decisive blow. The FARC is still a threat and, although weakened, it has stepped up its attacks in the last few years.

Analysts say it is clear the conflict cannot be won by military means alone and the government has a greater chance of negotiating an end to the war from a position of strength than of completely wiping out the rebels.

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