Colombia closer to ending longest civil war in Latin America

By Alexandre Grosbois in Havana

President hopes to have peace deal within a month after Farc agrees to ceasefire.
A Farc fighter in the group's hidden camp in Antioquia state hangs a banner featuring the late rebel leader Alfonso Cano. Photo / AP
A Farc fighter in the group's hidden camp in Antioquia state hangs a banner featuring the late rebel leader Alfonso Cano. Photo / AP

Colombia's Government and the Farc guerrilla force yesterday agreed on a definitive ceasefire, taking one of the last steps towards ending Latin America's longest civil war.

The announcement heralds an end to a half-century conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the jungles of the major cocaine-producing country.

"We have successfully reached an agreement for a definitive bilateral ceasefire and end to hostilities," the two sides said in a joint statement.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a signing ceremony marking a cease-fire and rebel disarmament deal, in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a signing ceremony marking a cease-fire and rebel disarmament deal, in Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP

Farc commander Carlos Lozada tweeted: "On Thursday, June 23, we will announce the last day of the war."

The deal resolves one of the final points in peace talks between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country's biggest rebel group.

The deal was to be formally announced at a ceremony with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Farc commander Timoleon Jimenez.

The statement said foreign leaders and officials including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would attend.

Santos said this week he hopes to seal a full peace deal by July 20.

"Tomorrow will be a great day!" he wrote on Twitter. "We are working for a Colombia at peace, a dream that is starting to become a reality."

The Colombian conflict started as a rural uprising in the 1960s.

It has drawn in various leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs over the decades.

The violence has left 220,000 people dead, 45,000 missing and nearly 7 million displaced, according to official figures.

Human rights groups say atrocities have been committed on all sides. Many families are still searching for missing loved ones.

The accord covers "the laying-down of arms, security guarantees and the fight against the criminal organisations" accused of fuelling the conflict, the statement said.

"This means the end of the longest and most bloody conflict in the western hemisphere and a new opportunity to bet on democracy," said Angelika Rettberg, a conflict resolution specialist at the University of the Andes.

The means of implementation of a final peace deal remain to be settled.

Santos' Government wants a referendum to put the seal of popular approval on the peace.

People celebrate the agreement between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and Colombia's government. Photo / AP
People celebrate the agreement between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and Colombia's government. Photo / AP

Peace talks have been underway in Havana since 2012. They got a boost when the Farc declared a unilateral ceasefire a year ago.

The Marxist guerrilla group then agreed to remove child soldiers from its ranks.

Provisional accords have been signed on compensating victims and fighting the drug trade that fuels the conflict.

The sides are discussing designating zones where the Farc's estimated 7000 remaining fighters can gather for a UN-supervised demobilisation process.

"The UN is prepared to do whatever it can to strengthen the peace process," said its deputy spokesman Farhan Haq yesterday.

Santos and the country's second-biggest rebel group, the leftist National Liberation Army, have also said they will start peace talks.

That initiative has stumbled due to alleged kidnappings by the group.

Q&A: Half a century of conflict

How did the conflict start?

The 1948 assassination of populist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to a political bloodletting known as "La Violencia", or "The Violence". Tens of thousands died, and peasant groups joined with communists to arm themselves. A 1964 military attack on their main encampment led to the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.

What are Farc's aims?

Though Marxist at its founding, the Farc's ideology has never been well defined. It has sought to make the conservative oligarchy share power and prioritised land reform in a country where more than 5 million people have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers. The Farc lost popularity as it turned to kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its insurgency.

What has been the human toll?

More than 220,000 lives have been lost, most of them civilians. In the past two decades, many of the killings were inflicted by the militias, which made peace with the Government in 2003.

What about peace efforts?

Mid-1980s peace talks collapsed after death squads killed at least 3000 allies of the Farc's political wing. Another effort fell apart in 2002 after the rebels hijacked an airliner to kidnap a senator. The current talks have been going on since 2012 in Havana.

Agreements so far?

Negotiators have announced an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire and a blueprint for how an estimated 7000 Farc fighters will demobilise and lay down their weapons. Accords have also been reached on land reform, combatting drug trafficking, the guerrillas' political participation and punishing war crimes on both sides.

What remains?

Guarantees to protect the deal from future governments. President Juan Manuel Santos has vowed to put any deal to a national referendum; Farc is pushing for ratification through a constitutional convention.

- AFP, AP

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