Colombia's defense minister says the country's leftist rebels are greatly weakened and should negotiate an end to the decades-old civil war while they still have a position from which to barter.  VOA's Michael Bowman reports, the minister made the comments in Washington, where he had scheduled talks with U.S. military officials.

Recent months have brought a flood of welcome news for Colombia's government in its battle against rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.  

March saw a successful cross-border raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador that netted valuable rebel computer files.  In May, reports surfaced of the death of the group's commander Manuel Marulanda.  Most recently, Colombian forces tricked the rebels into handing over 15 long-held hostages, including Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos says the rebels no longer control vast swaths of territory, are experiencing significant command and communications problems, and have lost whatever legitimacy they may have once enjoyed among certain sectors of Colombian society.  But he says FARC continues to refuse to negotiate with the government of President Alvaro Uribe.

"They have never wanted to negotiate," said Santos. "They are the ones who have said, 'We do not talk with President Uribe.'  If they do not seize the moment, the opportunity [to negotiate], in a year, two years they would have no bargaining chips.  Because the momentum is on our side."

Santos stressed, the rebels are not yet defeated, and pressure must be maintained on them until the battle is won decisively, or until they agree to lay down their arms and rejoin civil society.

The defense minister noted it was not long ago that much of the country had been lost to the rebels and Colombia came perilously close to being declared a failed state.  He said President Uribe deserves credit for successful military campaigns, the return of law and order in Colombia, and the professionalization of security forces, including a renewed focus on human rights.

"The respect for human rights: the way the military treats the population," Santos said.  "We have been telling them in every way possible, 'Your success depends on the approval, the support that the population gives the military.'  Today, and I am very proud to say this, the most popular institution in Colombia, by far, is our military and police."

Yet human rights groups say Colombia's record under President Uribe is far from stellar, noting that extra-judicial killings by security forces remain commonplace.  The Washington Office on Latin America notes that more than 300 such killings were reported in Colombia last year.

"Colombia is not going to be resolving its deep-rooted issues, which are basically economic and land issues and social inequality at heart, through militarization," Gimena Sanchez,  the group's senior associate for Colombia. "In the six years or so that President Uribe has been in power, we have seen over a million people become newly internally displaced. And so we ask, if the military policy has been successful, why has it not prevented the displacement of all these people?"

In his remarks, Defense Minister Santos admitted thorny human rights issues remain unresolved in his country, but maintained that significant progress has been made and the country is on the right path.