Colombia seeks green light for peace referendum

Bogota (AFP) - Colombia's government Thursday urged the courts to authorize a referendum it hopes will seal a peace deal to end a half-century conflict with leftist rebels.

The European Union's top foreign relations official meanwhile visited the country to support a deal, which negotiators say could be signed within months.

President Juan Manuel Santos urged the constitutional court to pass a law approving the holding of a referendum.

The means of endorsing the peace deal is one of the last remaining hurdles in talks between Santos's government and the country's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Santos wants to strengthen the deal by gaining popular endorsement in a referendum. To do so, he needs the constitutional judges to approve his law already passed in Congress.

"Citizens, Colombians and president are united in asking this court to declare applicable the law regulating a plebiscite on the final peace accord," he said in an address to the tribunal.

The constitutional court also heard arguments from other authorities and experts before issuing its ruling.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Bogota that the bloc would contribute a new package of 575 million euros (644 million dollars) to support the transition to peace, according to a statement from the EU delegation in Colombia.

She met with Colombian officials including Santos to offer him her support, the president said on Twitter.

"European history shows us that actually you need strong leaders to do peace," Mogherini told reporters.

"I think this is what Colombia needs now: brave, courageous leaders to do peace."

Santos and the country's second-biggest rebel group, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), have also said they will start peace talks.

That initiative appears to have stumbled due to alleged kidnappings by the group.

Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the government was holding the ELN responsible for the disappearance of three journalists this week.