Santos orders ceasefire after Colombia seals peace deal

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  • Juan Manuel Santos
    Juan Manuel Santos
    Former president of Colombia

Bogota (AFP) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a definitive ceasefire with the FARC rebels Thursday after the two sides reached a historic deal to end their half-century conflict.

With Colombia now gearing up for a decisive referendum on the deal on October 2, Santos ordered a ceasefire from Monday, ending hostilities that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee their homes.

"The armed conflict with the FARC has ended," he said in an address from the steps of Congress to applause from a crowd waving large paper cutouts of white doves.

He was there to formally present the 297-page peace accord concluded Wednesday by negotiators from the government and the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The fate of the accord, hashed out in nearly four years of arduous negotiations in Cuba, now comes down to a yes-or-no vote.

Santos, who has staked his legacy on the peace process, faces a tough political battle to win the referendum.

His top rival, former president Alvaro Uribe, is leading a campaign to vote "No" to the deal, arguing his successor has given away too much to the FARC.

Santos -- who is still due to sign the accord before the referendum, along with FARC leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez -- wasted no time in launching the "Yes" campaign.

He told voters the referendum would be the most important election of their lives.

Opinion polls are mixed on how Colombians will vote.

The accord will take effect only if the "Yes" camp wins a majority while gathering at least 4.4 million votes -- 13 percent of the electorate.

The government's chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, warned there was "no room to renegotiate" if voters reject the deal.

"After nearly four years here with the FARC, it's time to decide," he said in Havana.

- Tough road ahead -

Other obstacles to peace remain.

The government is still fighting a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), whose ongoing kidnappings have derailed efforts to open peace negotiations.

And it will have to come up with the money to finance rural infrastructure projects and other carrots offered to the FARC, at a time of economic slowdown.

US President Barack Obama, who called Santos Wednesday to congratulate him on the "historic" news, acknowledged the tough road ahead.

"Even as we mark the end of an era of war, we recognize that the work of achieving a just and lasting peace is only beginning," he said Thursday.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini also hailed the deal, but also warned of the challenges ahead.

Obama vowed continuing support for Colombia, a key ally in the US war on drugs.

Washington has spent more than $10 billion on a joint anti-narcotics strategy called "Plan Colombia" -- recently rebooted as "Peace Colombia" by Obama.

- Half-century of conflict -

The conflict began with the founding of FARC in 1964, when leftist guerrilla armies were fighting to sow revolution throughout Latin America.

Over the years, it has killed an estimated 260,000 people, uprooted 6.8 million and left 45,000 missing.

Along the way, the fighting has drawn in several leftist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries. Drug cartels have also fueled the violence in the world's largest cocaine-producing country.

Now, 25 years after the Cold War, Colombia's civil war is the last major armed conflict in the Americas.

The peace accord comprises six separate deals, covering justice for victims of the conflict, land reform, political participation for ex-rebels, disarmament, fighting drug trafficking, and the implementation and monitoring of the accord.

Under the deal, the FARC will begin moving its estimated 7,000 fighters from their jungle and mountain hideouts into disarmament camps set up by the United Nations, which is helping monitor the ceasefire.

The FARC will then become a political party.

Special courts will be created to judge crimes committed during the conflict.

An amnesty will be granted for less serious offenses. But it will not cover the worst atrocities, such as massacres, torture and rape.

Those responsible for such crimes will face up to 20 years in prison, with lighter sentences if they confess.

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