Jun 23, 2016 12:10 AM

Colombia, FARC rebels near closure on peace deal

The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) Colombia will move closer than ever to ending a half-century of bloodshed when its president joins leftist rebels Thursday in celebrating a cease-fire and disarmament agreement at a dignitary-studded signing ceremony in Cuba.

After more than three years of often prickly negotiations in the Cuban capital, President Juan Manuel Santos' government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced Wednesday that they had settled the final differences on how 7,000 rebel fighters will demobilize and hand over their weapons once a peace accord is implemented.

Santos' trip to Havana is a sign that a final deal to end Latin America's oldest guerrilla war is close. Together with top FARC commander Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, Santos will unveil details of the disarmament deal at a ceremony attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, several other Latin American presidents and a U.S. special envoy.

Colombia's conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions. But a 15-year, U.S.-backed military offensive thinned rebel ranks and forced FARC's aging leaders to the negotiating table in 2012. And in Santos, a U.S.-educated economist and scion of one of Colombia's richest families, the rebels found a trusted partner who hailed from the conservative elite but wasn't bound by its prejudices.

Momentum had been building toward a breakthrough after Santos said this week that he hoped to deliver a peace accord in time to mark Colombia's declaration of independence from Spain on July 20. But the latest agreement went further than expected.

In addition to a framework for the cease-fire, both sides said Wednesday they agreed on a demobilization plan that will see guerrillas concentrate in rural areas and hand over weapons that had long been the vaunted symbols of their movement's origins as a self-defense force of peasant farmers attacked by the oligarchy-controlled state.

Negotiators in January agreed on the United Nations being responsible for monitoring adherence to the eventual cease-fire and resolving disputes emerging from the demobilization

The presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, the three nations sponsoring the peace talks in Havana, were expected to attend Thursday's ceremony. The Obama administration was sending its special envoy to the talks, Bernard Aronson.

With the latest advance, only a few minor items remain to be worked out for a peace accord. The biggest is how the final deal will be ratified and given legal armor so it won't unravel should a more conservative government succeed Santos, who leaves office in 2018.

Santos has also promised to let Colombians vote on accepting the final accord in a national referendum, and his government isn't taking acceptance for granted.

"Tomorrow will be a great day," Santos tweeted Wednesday. "We're working for a Colombia in peace, a dream that's beginning to become reality."

A peace deal won't make Colombia safer overnight.

The proliferation of cocaine has fueled the conflict longer than any other in Latin America and will remain a powerful magnet for criminal gangs operating in Colombia's remote valleys and lawless jungles. Colombia is the largest supplier of cocaine to the U.S. and only a small fraction of the country's 12,000-plus homicides last year had anything to do with the conflict.

There is also the risk that the country's second rebel movement, the much-smaller but more recalcitrant National Liberation Army, could fill the void left by the FARC. That rebel group agreed to negotiations with the government earlier this year but those talks have yet to start because of Santos' insistence that it renounce kidnapping

But if the FARC honor their commitments and the fighters are successfully integrated back into society, the government could begin shifting resources away from the battlefield and toward attacking other forms of crime and the crushing poverty and inequality that it feeds on.

One wild card is the posture of critics like popular former President Alvaro Uribe, who spearheaded the military offensive against the FARC last decade. Partly because of his success beating back the FARC, Colombians almost unanimously refer to the rebels as "terrorists." Polls say most Colombians can't muster the thought of seeing rebel leaders behind atrocious war crimes walking the streets freely let alone occupying seats in a democratic congress whose legitimacy the FARC didn't even recognize until recently.

Uribe refused to comment on Wednesday's announcement, saying he was waiting more details.

Others couldn't hold back their excitement. Leftist Sen. Ivan Cepeda borrowed a phrase from Colombia's beloved Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to compare the prospect of peace to a "second chance on earth."

"It's time to rid ourselves of hatred, lies and fears and build reconciliation among all our compatriots," Cepeda, one of the government's most-trusted conduits to the FARC, said on Twitter. "Peace defeats death."


Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story in Havana and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.


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