HAVANA • Half a century of conflict looks set to come to an end, as the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels will sign a definitive peace deal within six months, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.
Mr Santos and Farc leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez presided over a ceremony where government and rebel negotiators signed a deal on justice for crimes committed during the conflict, which had been the key issue blocking progress in the talks.
Mr Santos said on Wednesday that he and Timochenko "have agreed that at the latest in six months, these negotiations must conclude and the final peace accord must be signed".
"It's not going to be an easy job because there are still difficult points to agree upon, but that is the instruction we have given to our delegations: They must complete the accord as soon as possible," he said.
Mr Santos, 64, had made a surprise trip to Havana, Cuba, where the talks are being held, for the signing ceremony. It is the first time he has appeared at the negotiations that he set in motion nearly three years ago and which he has staked his presidency on successfully concluding. It was also the first time he had met Timochenko.
Timochenko, 56, said the deal "opens the possibility to offer full and detailed truth" to victims of the conflict.
Cuban President Raul Castro was also present for the ceremony.
The talks in Havana, which began in November 2012, had stalled over the thorny question of whether guerillas will face prison for kidnappings, use of child soldiers, cocaine trafficking and other crimes.
The new deal includes an amnesty for "political and related crimes", though it will not cover crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes or other grave violations, said officials from Cuba and Norway, which are mediating the talks.
The deal includes special courts with both Colombian and foreign judges to try those charged with the most serious crimes. Both Farc members and government forces will be subject to their jurisdiction.
Victims of the conflict, such as Ms Teresita Gaviria, who testified before peace talk negotiators, welcomed the announcement. Ms Gaviria, whose son vanished 17 years ago, said the deal meant "the victims can now have a sense of calm".
Experts hailed the deal as a milestone. "Not everything is resolved, but what was announced today is a substantial step forward," said political analyst Ariel Avila.
Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende called the latest advance "extremely positive" but warned that the way forward was still difficult, as "not everyone in Colombia wants a peace agreement".
The conflict began with the founding of Farc in 1964 in the aftermath of a peasant uprising. It has drawn in not only government troops and various leftist guerilla armies, but also right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers.
Farc has been observing a unilateral ceasefire since July 20. Mr Santos has rebuffed its demands for a bilateral ceasefire, but has suspended air strikes on rebel positions.
There are six items on the agenda at the talks. Deals had already been reached on three of them: land reform, political participation for former rebels, and fighting the drug trafficking that has fuelled the conflict in the world's largest cocaine-producing country.
Farc, the largest leftist guerilla group still active in Colombia, has an estimated 7,000 fighters.