Colombia urges UN to quickly deploy peace verification team

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Colombia's high commissioner for peace on Friday urged the U.N. political mission that will monitor and verify a future cease-fire to deploy in the next three or four weeks — before the government and leftist rebels reach a final peace accord.

Sergio Jaramillo told reporters that the mission needs to deploy as quickly as possible because its presence "is an extremely important guarantee" not just of the process of disarming FARC rebels but for receiving their weapons.

But above and beyond that, he said, the U.N. mission must deploy "as quickly as possible" so that whenever negotiators reach a final deal in Havana, Cuba, it is already on the ground "and gives guarantees to Colombians that they can vote freely" on whether or not to accept the agreement.

"At the latest, in three or four weeks they should be able to be there in full force," Jaramillo said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report to the U.N. Security Council circulated later Friday that the political mission will operate in 40 widely dispersed locations and require about 450 observers and a number of civilians. He said 80 observers are already in Colombia and have participated in visits to local areas where the separation of forces and the laying down of arms will take place.

The cease-fire agreement provides that the observers would come mainly from Latin America and Caribbean countries and Ban said "in view of existing pledges, this is certain to be the case." Colombia's U.N. Ambassador María Mejía Vélez said the U.N. has pledges from most Latin American countries as well as Spain, France, Canada and others.

Decades of fighting between guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces has left more than 220,000 Colombians dead, some 40,000 missing, and over 5 million driven from their homes.

On June 23, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebels signed a cease-fire and rebel disarmament deal that moved the country to the brink of ending the 52-year war. Negotiators have reached agreements on all major issues, and Santos has said in recent months that a final agreement is close.

The biggest unresolved matter is how the accord will be ratified and given legal armor so it won't unravel should a more conservative government succeed Santos, who leaves office in 2018.

Jaramillo expressed hope negotiations will end "as soon as possible" but he said "it's a negotiation, so naturally one can never say when it's going to end."

Last month, Colombia's top court approved the government's plans to hold a plebiscite on the peace deal. According to Jaramillo, the plebiscite law says the vote should take place at least 30 days after an agreement is reached.

The secretary-general's report spells out the U.N.'s role in verifying the laying down of arms, observing the cease-fire, and coordinating a three-party verification body that includes the U.N., the government and the rebels. It makes no mention of undertaking any activities related to a plebiscite.

Ban said one outstanding agreement that will be important to the U.N. mission is on reintegrating FARC combatants into society.

Jaramillo noted that Colombia has had three failed peace processes, in the mid-1980s, 1991, and from 1999-2002.

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