Colombia, Marxist rebels sign peace accord ending 52-year war

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist FARC leader Rodrigo Londono sign a historic peace accord in Cartagena.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) observes Marxist rebel leader Timochenko (right) using a pen made from a bullet to sign an accord ending a half-century war.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) observes Marxist rebel leader Timochenko (right) using a pen made from a bullet to sign an accord ending a half-century war.PHOTO: EPA

CARTAGENA, Colombia (REUTERS) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist rebel leader Timochenko used a pen made from a bullet to sign an accord ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people.

After four years of peace talks in Cuba, Mr Santos, 65, and Timochenko - the nom de guerre for 57-year-old revolutionary Rodrigo Londono - shook hands on Colombian soil for the first time in front of hundreds of dignitaries on Monday (Sept 26).

One man waved a large Colombian flag that had an extra white stripe in homage to the peace deal.

The end of Latin America's longest-running war will turn the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) into a political party fighting at the ballot box instead of the battlefield they have occupied since 1964.

Guests at the ceremony in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena were asked to wear white and included United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Cuban President Raul Castro and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Showing its support for the peace deal, the European Union on Monday removed the Farc from its list of terror groups.

Mr Kerry said Washington will also review whether to take the Farc off its terror list, and has pledged US$390 million (S$530 million) for Colombia next year to support the peace process.

"Anybody can pick up a gun, blow things up, hurt other people, but it doesn't take you anywhere ... Peace is hard work," he said of a rare diplomatic good news story for the Obama administration as it contends with the seeming intractable war in Syria and other conflicts.

PEACE VOTE

Despite widespread relief at an end to the bloodshed and kidnappings of the past 52 years, the deal has caused divisions within Latin America's fourth-largest economy.

Influential former president Alvaro Uribe and others are angry the accord allows rebels to enter Parliament without serving any jail time.

Colombians will vote on Oct 2 on whether to ratify the agreement, but polls show it should pass easily.

In Cartagena on Monday, huge billboards urged a "yes" vote, while Mr Uribe led hundreds of supporters with umbrellas in the colours of the Colombian flag urging voters to back "no".

Farc began as a peasant revolt, became a big player in the cocaine trade and at its strongest had 20,000 fighters. Now its some 7,000 fighters must hand over their weapons to the United Nations within 180 days.

Colombians are nervous about how the rebels will integrate into society, but most are optimistic peace will bring more benefits than problems. "I can't believe this day has finally come," said an excited Juan Gamarra, 43, who sells jewellery in Cartagena.

Colombia has performed better economically than its neighbours in recent years, and peace should reduce the government's security spending and open new areas of the country for mining and oil companies.

But criminal gangs may try to fill the void in rebel-held areas, landmines hinder development and rural poverty remains a huge challenge.

With peace achieved, Mr Santos, a member of a wealthy Bogota family, will likely use his political capital to push for tax reforms and other measures to compensate for a drop in oil income caused by a fall in energy prices.

Big screens were set up around the nation of 49 million people so that thousands could watch the ceremony live.

"It's such an important day," said Duvier, a nom de guerre for a 25-year-old rebel attending a Farc congress last week in the southern Yari Plains that ratified the peace accord.

"Now we can fight politically, without blood, without war."