Colombia, Marxist rebels end 52-year war

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) and Marxist rebel leader Timochenko shake hands after signing an accord ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people, in CartagenaColombia’s center-right government and the Marxist FARC rebel group signed a peace deal on Monday, ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people and once took the Andean country to the brink of collapse.

After four years of peace talks in Cuba, President Juan Manuel Santos, 65, and rebel leader Timochenko – the nom de guerre for 57-year-old Rodrigo Londono – warmly shook hands on Colombian soil for the first time and signed the accord with a pen made from a bullet casing.

A crowd of dignitaries chanted “long live Colombia, long live peace” as Santos handed Timochenko a white dove pin. One man waved a large Colombian flag that had an extra white stripe in homage to the peace deal.

“The horrible night of violence that has covered us with its shadow for more than half a century is over,” Santos said. “We open our hearts to a new dawn, to a brilliant sun full of possibilities that has appeared in the Colombian sky.”

Attendees observed a minute of silence in memory of those killed, maimed, raped, kidnapped and displaced during the war.

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

“No one should doubt that we will conduct politics without arms,” said Timochenko, who asked for forgiveness from FARC victims. “We are all prepared to disarm in our minds and our hearts.”

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 U.S. 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.

Kerry said Washington will also review whether to take the FARC off its terror list, and has pledged $390 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.

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 Uribe led hundreds of supporters with umbrellas in the colors of the Colombian flag urging voters to back “no.”

The FARC, or 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 its some 7,000 fighters must hand over their weapons to the United Nations within 180 days.

Colombians are nervous over how the rebels will integrate into society, but most are optimistic peace will bring more benefits than problems.

“This is the moment, it’s now or never,” said 50-year-old lawyer Melquis Pulecio, as he watched the ceremony with thousands of others on a big screen in central Bogota. “We are tired of this war – we were born to war.”

Colombia has performed better economically than its neighbors 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, 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.” (Courtesy Reuters)