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

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist FARC leader Rodrigo Londono sign a historic peace accord in Cartagena.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and Timoleon Jimenez (also known as Timochenko) hold folders with documents as Cuban President Raul Castro (centre) gestures during the signing of the ceasefire in Havana on June 23, 2016.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and Timoleon Jimenez (also known as Timochenko) hold folders with documents as Cuban President Raul Castro (centre) gestures during the signing of the ceasefire in Havana on June 23, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

CARTAGENA, Colombia (REUTERS) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist rebel leader Timochenko will use a pen made from a bullet on Monday (Sept 26) to sign an agreement ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people and made their nation a byword for violence.

After four years of negotiations in Havana, Santos, 65, and Timochenko, a nom de guerre for 57-year-old revolutionary Rodrigo Londono, will shake hands on Colombian soil for the first time.

Some 2,500 foreign and local dignitaries will attend the ceremony scheduled for 5pm local time (2200 GMT) in the walled, colonial city of Cartagena.

The agreement to end Latin America's longest-running conflict will turn the FARC guerrillas into a political party fighting at the ballot box instead of the battlefield they have occupied since 1964.

"We are going to sign with a bullet-pen ... to illustrate the transition of bullets into education and future," said Santos, who staked his reputation on achieving peace.

Guests expected include United Nations head Ban Ki Moon, Cuban President Raul Castro, US Secretary of State John Kerry and victims of the conflict.

"The UN will assist in the implementation of the accord and offer Colombians our complete support at a time that sees a new destiny for the nation," Ban said before flying to Colombia.

PEACE VOTE NEXT WEEK

Despite widespread relief at an end to the bloodshed and kidnappings of past decades, the deal has caused divisions in Latin America's fourth-biggest economy.

Influential former President Alvaro Uribe and others are angry that 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 will pass easily. Around Cartagena on Monday, huge billboards urged a "yes" vote.

FARC, which stands for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, began as a peasant revolt, became a big player in the cocaine trade and at its strongest had 20,000 fighters. Now it must hand over weapons to the United Nations within 180 days.

Colombians are nervous over how the remaining 7,000 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 jewelry in Cartagena.

Colombia has performed better economically than its neighbours in recent years, and peace should reduce security costs and open new areas for mining and oil companies. But criminal gangs could try to fill the void, and landmines hinder development.

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

Big screens to watch the ceremony were being erected around the nation of 49 million people. "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."