October 18, 2015 / 12:37 PM / in 2 years

Colombia, rebels reach deal to search for thousands missing in war

HAVANA/BOGOTA (Reuters) - The Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels have agreed to two measures they say will help find tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during 50 years of war, as the two sides take the final steps toward a peace deal.

The agreement, reached late Saturday, addresses a key issue at the negotiations, which reached a major breakthrough in September when then two sides vowed to sign a deal by March.

Colombia’s attorney general estimates 52,000 people have disappeared during Latin America’s longest war, which has killed some 220,000 people and displaced millions. Victim groups say between 70,000 and 100,000 people may have gone missing.

The two sides agreed to create a “specialized unit to search for people who are considered disappeared,” according to a joint statement. The unit, separate from judicial investigations, will provide families with official reports on information obtained about their missing family members.

“These steps are transcendental, but, I repeat, they are just first steps,” lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said on Sunday. “What was agreed yesterday looks to alleviate this pain - the profound pain of the families of the disappeared.”

The government and rebels will also furnish the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with information about the missing, so the charity can help design search plans.

“We will put all our experience toward supporting relatives, exhuming mortal remains in areas where the government cannot do it and by consulting with responsible institutions,” Christoph Harnisch, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Colombia said in a statement.

The agreement was “another step for peace” President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on successfully reaching a deal, said on Twitter.

Some captured and demobilized former rebels have already cooperated with authorities to locate remains in exchange for lighter sentences, a task complicated by the rural jungle or mountain locations of many unmarked graves.

Human rights advocates and families of the disappeared have warned that unless more bodies are located, exhumed, identified and returned to their families, Colombia risks handicapping its post-conflict development.

Forensic investigators in the Andean country often struggle with large case loads and lack of training, funding and equipment.

The government and FARC have been in peace talks in Havana for nearly three years. They recently set a deadline of March 23 to reach a final agreement, which would then be put before Colombian voters for ratification.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Lisa Shumaker

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