The Colombian government and the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed Wednesday in Havana to sign a peace agreement within six months, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.
“We need to go through the final points but there can be only one conclusion: peace is possible, and it is closer than ever,” Santos said on Twitter.
Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, also known by the alias Timochenko, held their first-ever face-to-face meeting Wednesday, in the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro.
“This is a crucial, very positive day in our country’s progress towards peace and towards the end of an armed conflict that has bled us out for more than half a century,” Santos said in an address to the country.
The United States welcomed the agreement, saying it represents historic progress toward a final peace agreement.
“Peace is now ever closer for the Colombian people and millions of conflict victims,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Kerry also expressed appreciation to Pope Francis, who is currently on a visit to the US, for “his moral leadership and the Vatican’s good offices in the quest for peace in Colombia.”
The agreement establishes a legal framework to hold accountable those who committed crimes during the 50-year conflict in the South American nation, a crucial step that cleared the way towards a comprehensive peace agreement.
“We attained our intended goal: peace without impunity! We also achieved the difficult task of ensuring the utmost justice that peace will allow,” the Colombian president said on Twitter.
The direct involvement of Santos and Londono heightened the profile of the ongoing talks between FARC and Bogota authorities, which have been taking place in Havana since 2012.
Negotiators agreed on a broad amnesty for political crimes, both parties said in a statement. There will, however, be no amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those who confess to having committed serious crimes face a maximum of eight years in prison.
En route to UN General Assembly sessions in New York, Santos said earlier Wednesday he would make a stopover in Cuba to take part in the talks and “accelerate the end” of the conflict in Colombia.
In previous rounds of talks, the Colombian government and FARC had already reached agreements on agrarian development, political participation for demobilized rebels and the fight against drug trafficking, as well as demining commitments.
FARC are the largest and oldest guerrilla group in Latin America. This and other rebel groups once controlled large parts of Colombia. While they have been seriously weakened in recent years, they retain a presence, particularly in the more remote areas of the country.
Experts believe that FARC are still active in 25 of Colombia’s 32 provinces and have a total of around 8,000 fighters.
The conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced almost 5 million people over half a century. Many Colombians fled to slums in the outskirts of the country’s largest cities to escape the conflict in rural areas.
Colombian authorities estimate at 7.6 million the number of people directly and indirectly affected by the conflict. Colombia is second only to Afghanistan in the number of land mine victims.
The Marxist FARC’s roots lie in the civil war of the 1950s between the Liberal and Conservative parties. Later the rebels served as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The rebels sought to enter politics from 1984 through the party Union Patriotica, but thousands of their politicians and supporters were killed by right-wing paramilitaries.
At their most powerful, FARC held peace talks with the Colombian government 1998-2002. They were granted a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, but the rebels are believed to have used it mostly to regroup forces, and the talks failed.
FARC are believed to finance their activities mostly through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnappings. Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who spent more than six years in the hands of the rebels until she was released in a military operation in 2008, was one of their most high-profile hostages.