HAVANA, Cuba, Jun 23 – Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla force say they will sign a definitive ceasefire Thursday, one of the last steps toward ending Latin America’s longest civil war.
The move heralds an end to a half-century conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the jungles of the major cocaine-producing country.
“We have successfully reached an agreement for a definitive bilateral ceasefire and end to hostilities,” the two sides said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The deal resolves one of the final points in peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.
“On Thursday, June 23, we will announce the last day of the war,” FARC commander Carlos Lozada tweeted.
The deal is set to be formally launched Thursday at a ceremony with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleon Jimenez, the statement said.
Foreign leaders and officials including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would attend the ceremony early on Thursday afternoon, it added.
Santos said this week he hopes to seal a full peace deal by July 20.
“Tomorrow will be a great day!” he wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “We are working for a Colombia at peace, a dream that is starting to become a reality.”
The Colombian conflict started as a rural uprising in the 1960s.
It has drawn in various leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs over the decades.
The violence has left 260,000 people dead, 45,000 missing and nearly seven million displaced, according to official figures.
Human rights groups say atrocities have been committed on all sides. Many families are still searching for missing loved ones.
Thursday’s accord covers “the laying-down of arms, security guarantees and the fight against the criminal organizations” accused of fueling the conflict, the statement said.
“This means the end of the longest and most bloody conflict in the western hemisphere and a new opportunity to bet on democracy,” said Angelika Rettberg, a conflict resolution specialist at the University of the Andes.
However, the means of implementing a final peace deal remain to be settled.
Santos’s government wants a referendum to put a seal of popular approval on the peace after three-and-a-half years of negotiations.
The two sides signed provisional accords on compensating victims and fighting the drug trade that has fueled the conflict.
They are also discussing designating zones where the FARC’s estimated 7,000 remaining fighters can gather for a UN-supervised demobilization process.
“The UN is prepared to do whatever it can to strengthen the peace process,” its deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said on Wednesday.
“We hope it will lead to a final agreement and the end of this long war.”
The United States said its Special Envoy Bernard Aronson was heading to Havana to represent Washington at Thursday’s ceremony.
“The United States welcomes (Wednesday’s) communique, looks forward to the event tomorrow and hopes the parties will continue to make progress toward a final peace accord,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Although peace with the FARC would virtually end the conflict, other armed groups are still operating in Colombia.
Santos and the country’s second-biggest rebel group, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), have also said they would start peace talks.
However, that initiative has stumbled because of the group’s alleged kidnappings.