The longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere appears to be ending as the Colombian government reached a historic peace accord with rebel leaders Wednesday in Cuba.
The government's accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) still must be ratified by voters in a referendum scheduled for October 2. Analysts expect the pact to be approved easily.
"The termination of armed confrontation signifies, most importantly, the end of the enormous suffering the conflict has caused," the negotiators read from the joint statement in Havana. "We do not want there to be one more victim in Colombia. The end of the conflict will open a new chapter in our history."
The announcement of a deal after four years of talks opened the possibility for Colombians to put behind them bloodshed that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven more than 5 million people from their homes.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to congratulate him on the peace deal. The White House said, "The president recognized this historic day as a critical juncture in what will be a long process to fully implement a just and lasting peace agreement."
The accord commits Colombia's government to carrying out aggressive land reform, overhauling its anti-narcotics strategy and greatly expanding state administration of traditionally neglected rural areas of the country.
In a statement released by his spokesman, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the Colombian government on the negotiation and solution of the long-standing conflict, and called for an “equally determined and exemplary effort” to make sure the terms of the agreement are met.
“The Secretary-General calls upon the international community to lend its full support to Colombia at this new and critical stage of the peace process,” the statement read. “The United Nations will strive to continue and intensify the support it has given to peace efforts over the years through its agencies, funds, programs, and the UN Mission in Colombia, which is mandated to verify the cease-fire and the laying down of arms.”
The rebel army was forced to the negotiating table after a decade of heavy battlefield losses that saw a succession of top rebel commanders killed by the U.S.-backed military and its ranks thinned by half to the current 7,000 troops.
Opponents of Santos and some human rights groups have criticized a key part of the deal that says guerrillas who confess their crimes won't spend any time in prison and will instead be allowed to serve out reduced sentences of no more than eight years by helping rebuild communities hit by the conflict.
Another toad to swallow, as Santos calls the concessions he's had to make, will be the sight of former rebel leaders occupying seats in congress specially reserved for the FARC's still-unnamed political movement. The exact number of such seats was among the last details being decided in marathon 18-hour sessions taking place in recent days.