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Colombia Government, Rebels to Cooperate in Search for Disappeared

Cuban President Raul Castro, center, encourages Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, and FARC Commander Timoleon Jimenez to shake hands after the last obstacle to a peace deal was overcome at talks in Havana, Sept. 23, 2015.

The Colombian government and Marxist rebels have unveiled a breakthrough deal aimed at officially determining the fate of tens of thousands of people missing and presumed dead during a half century of war.

The agreement, reached late Saturday in Havana, comes just weeks after Bogota government negotiators and their FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) counterparts publicly vowed to sign a peace deal by March 2016.

Colombian authorities say at least 51,000 people have gone missing since rebels launched their rebellion in 1964. Victim groups place the missing toll as high as 100,000. Government tallies show some 220,000 people killed and millions more displaced by the conflict.

Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Benitez told reporters the deal establishes a special unit to focus on the missing from Latin America's longest war. Both sides will furnish data on the missing to Colombia's National Institute of Legal Medicine and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross, in turn, will design a search program.

Last month, government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said both sides will "definitely" meet a March 23 deadline for a peace accord. At that time, President Juan Manuel Santos met with FARC commander Timoleon Jimenez for the first time. Both said a deal had been reached on the delicate issue of justice for crimes committed by rebels.

Colombia's rebel movement has been weakened in recent years, and right-wing paramilitary forces formed to counter leftist fighters have been disbanded.

The Bogota government estimated FARC had about 16,000 fighters in 2001. But analysts say that number may have dropped to as low as 7,000 in recent years, largely because of desertions.

Government and FARC envoys have been engaged in peace talks sponsored by Cuba and Norway for nearly three years.