September 23, 2015 / 1:30 PM / 2 years ago

Colombia, FARC rebels vow to reach peace deal in six months

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaks after a meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro at the Carondelet Palace in Quito, September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top commander of leftist FARC rebels shook hands on Wednesday and agreed to reach a final peace agreement within six months in Latin America’s longest war.

“The chief of the FARC secretariat and I have agreed that in no more than six months this negotiation should come to an end and we should sign a final agreement,” Santos told a ceremony in Havana, the site of peace talks for the past three years.

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have fought the Colombian government for 51 years in a conflict that has killed some 220,000 and displaced millions.

“This will not be an easy task because there are still some difficult points to agree. But it is an instruction that we have given to our delegations, that we reach an agreement as soon as possible,” Santos said.

“We won’t fail. The time for peace has arrived.”

Santos and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by the nom de guerre Timochenko, signed an agreement that would create special tribunals to try former combatants in a war that has killed some 220,000 and displaced millions since 1964.

HISTORIC HANDSHAKE

Santos and Timochenko greeted each other in a handshake likely to stand as a lasting image in Colombia. Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the meeting, joined his hands to theirs.

“It’s now up to both parties to multiply efforts to construct the consensus that will bring a bilateral ceasefire, agreements about abandoning arms, and the transformation of the FARC into a legal political movement,” Timochenko said.

The two sides also announced the formation of a truth commission, a deal on reparations for war victims and an amnesty for combatants except those who committed war crimes.

Santos’ visit marked the first time the president has traveled to Cuba since the negotiations began nearly three years ago.

“The end of the conflict will be a matter of a few months,” Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said on Twitter. “The construction of peace in our land will take years.”

Previously, the sides had reached partial agreements on land reform, political participation for ex-rebels and an end to the illegal drug trade. In addition, the two have reached a side agreement on removing landmines from the battlefield.

The insurgent group of about 8,000 combatants, down from 17,000 in their heyday, is considered a terrorist group by United States and European Union.

The FARC grew out of a 1960s peasant movement demanding land reform, and has been fighting successive governments ever since. The struggle has created one of the world’s highest internally displaced populations.

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Diego Ore in Havana; Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and David Gregorio

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