By Richard McColl
BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) – The Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas signed a formal conclusion of the peace talks Wednesday after almost four years of negotiations in Havana.
“The Colombian government and the FARC have reached a final agreement, comprehensive and definitive,” said Rodolfo Benitez, spokesperson for the Cuban government, one of the guarantor nations for the talks, whilst opening the conference.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander-in-Chief Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, alias Timochenko, will sign the official peace agreement in a symbolic ceremony in September in Colombia, as agreed in June, and in the presence of an estimated 15 presidents of various countries that may include U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The war is over,” said Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator for the Colombian government. “The best way to win a war was to sit down together and talk of peace.”
In an address to the nation, Santos officially signaled the end of the talks. “We have the definitive text of the final agreement. This text cannot be modified,” he said.
The United Nations late Wednesday welcomed the peace deal. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “warmly” congratulated the leaders that struck the deal for their “hard work and patience in reaching this stage in the process.
“Now that the negotiations have concluded, an equally determined and exemplary effort will be required to implement the agreements,” Ban said in a statement.
In a phone call with Santos, Obama congratulated the Colombian president on the milestone and “recognized this historic day as a critical juncture in what will be a long process to fully implement a just and lasting peace agreement.
“[Obama] noted that the U.S. was proud that it could stand with Colombia in supporting the pursuit of peace, and he pledged to continue the U.S. bipartisan tradition of support for strengthening Colombia’s institutions and improving the lives of the Colombian people through the Peace Colombia framework,” the White House said in a statement.
The talks, which began in October 2012, have addressed the topics of agrarian reform, political participation, illicit drugs, victims of the conflict and transitional justice, the terms of a bilateral cease-fire and how to end the conflict. No previous attempts at peace dialogues with the FARC have ever reached this stage. Three attempts since 1983 have failed.
“We have won the most wonderful battle: the battle for peace,” said FARC’s chief negotiator Ivan Marquez. “We have finished the war of weapons and started a debate fueled by ideas,” he continued.
After the accord is signed it will be sent to the Colombian Congress for approval. Once completed, there will be an Oct. 2 plebiscite referendum to allow Colombians to accept or reject the agreements tabled in the accords from Havana. Under the terms of the plebiscite vote, only a 13 percent threshold is needed for approval.
Five days after the accords are signed, FARC combatants, possibly as many as 7,000 fighters, will begin demobilizing and moving to 23 designated areas and eight concentration zones where they will begin a six-month period of disarmament and reintegration into Colombian society. Sixty days after peace is signed members of a United Nations delegation to Colombia will begin to store the weapons in containers.
“This is a unique and historic opportunity – it will be the most important vote of our lives! To leave this conflict behind us and dedicate our efforts to constructing a safer country, a calmer country, faire, better educated, for our children and for our grandchildren,” Santos told the nation. “The decision, Colombians, is in your hands.”
The Colombian conflict has since 1964, according to Human Rights Watch, resulted in more than 5.7 million residents forcibly displaced from their homes, and upwards of 200,000 continue to flee their homes each year in addition to having caused the deaths of almost 300,000 victims.
Colombia’s second guerrilla group, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN rebels) numbering approximately 2,500 combatants continue to wage war against the government. Exploratory talks have been underway but no agreement has been reached on a final agenda for peace dialogues.
* Anadolu Agency correspondent Michael Hernandez contributed to this story from Washington and Canberk Yuksel contributed from New York.