Colombia's rebels take another step toward ending conflict

Colombia's rebels take another step toward ending conflict

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HAVANA (AP) — Colombia's government and the country's largest rebel group took another major step toward signing a peace deal, agreeing on a framework to address the needs of millions of victims left by a half century of fighting.

Surrounded by representatives of victims' groups, negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government announced Tuesday they would make efforts, once a final deal is reached, to search for those killed or disappeared during the conflict, punish those responsible for war crimes and compensate victims and communities most affected by the violence.

The 63-page agreement also establishes an independent truth commission to guarantee human rights abuses don't return to areas where fighting between the rebels, armed forces and right-wing paramilitaries has been the most intense.

"We've never before been so close to peace," President Juan Manuel Santos, who was re-elected last year on a promise to sign a peace deal with the FARC, said in a televised address Tuesday night celebrating the progress being made.

Momentum to conclude the 3-year-old talks has been building since September, when Santos and FARC leader best known by his alias Timochenko announced a breakthrough agreement on how to punish rebels who confess war crimes.

Tuesday's partial agreement provides more details of how the special tribunals tasked with investigating atrocities will operate, and where rebels and state agents who confess their crimes will serve sentences restricting their movement for a maximum eight years. Instead of going to jail, rebels will be allowed to carry out the sentences, which will be subject to government supervision, enlisted in special projects such as clearing land mines and promoting development in rural areas traditionally forsaken by the state.

It's not clear who will appoint the Colombian and foreign-born judges that will serve on the tribunals, a detail seized upon by opponents who argue Santos is being too lenient with the rebels.

With Tuesday's announcement, only a few obstacles remain to a final deal, including agreeing on a formula for members of the FARC to demobilize and how the agreement will be ratified. Santos and the rebels in September agreed to conclude negotiations in six months.

While the rebels have since pushed back against a firm deadline, Santos reiterated the goal of wrapping up talks in March.

"The face of peace is beginning to appear," government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said.

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