By Richard McColl
BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) – The president of Colombia and the head of the FARC guerrillas signed an historic agreement Thursday on a bilateral cease-fire toward ending the decades-long Colombian conflict.
“I want underline the importance of the process that the FARC has taken today in agreeing to continue their struggle for their convictions, not through arms, but – as it should be – through politics, with ideas and arguments,” President Juan Manuel Santos said from Havana, Cuba, where the deal was signed.
Rodolfo Benitez, a representative of the Cuban government, read the agreement reached by both sides, in front of a delegation that included the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, five presidents and delegation from the Colombian government.
After the presentation, Santos and the FARC chief, known as Timochenko, sealed the deal with a handshake in the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro.
“Peace is not a utopia, it is a universal right,” Castro said. “Cuba in her condition as a guarantor of the talks will continue to offer the facilities needed and do everything possible to ensure that this peace accord is carried out.”
The cease-fire, which is the culmination of talks that began in Havana in November 2012, includes details of the zones of concentration for demobilized guerrillas in 23 areas across Colombia and that FARC combatants would begin demobilizing with a week. UN delegations are to arrive to oversee the disarming process.
“The final agreement is very near and this will permit us to begin the construction of a stable and lasting peace,” said Timochenko. He added that the FARC would enter politics: “This is our reason for existing, but with the same rights and politics as other political parties.”
Santos said a final peace deal would be signed in Colombia on July 20 and that he would personally guarantee justice for the victims of the conflict. “Our time to live without war has arrived. Our country is full of hope,” he said.
Agreements have been reached on the end of the conflict, justice for the victims, agrarian reform, political participation and the issue of illicit drugs.
In Washington, a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t publicly authorized to discuss the matter, said that Washington would review the FARC’s foreign terrorist designation “irrespective of the process and consistent with any FTO review process.”
The U.S. State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
The Colombian conflict began in 1964 and has killed more than 220,000 victims and displaced approximately 7 million.
“Although challenging issues remain as the two sides continue negotiating a final peace agreement, today’s announcement represents important progress in ending Colombia’s 52-year conflict. This progress is a testament to the courage and leadership shown by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos during four years of difficult negotiations,” said U.S. National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in a statement.
*Anadolu Agency Correspondent Michael Hernandez contributed to this story from Washington