The Colombian government and the FARC rebel force signed a ceasefire and disarmament agreement Thursday, one of the last steps toward ending a half-century conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The deal puts a definitive end to fighting in Latin America\’s longest civil war, which has torn the country apart with shootings and bombardments in its coca-rich jungles and hills.
President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez shook hands and smiled after negotiators signed the deal at a ceremony in Cuba.
The deal establishes "a bilateral ceasefire and end to hostilities and the definitive laying down of arms," according to the text.
"This is a historic day for our country," Santos said in a speech to assembled leaders including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"After more than 50 years of confrontations, deaths, attacks and pain, we have put a final end to the armed conflict with the FARC."
Disarmament will begin after the signing of a full final peace agreement, expected within weeks.
Thursday\’s agreements "leave us on the verge of completing a final accord relatively soon," Jimenez said.
The final deal "will allow us to return at last to legal political activity through peaceful and democratic means," he added.
In the Colombian capital Bogota, crowds gathered to watch the announcement on a big screen.
One man, Camilo Gonzalez, was moved to tears.
"It has been a tragic journey. Millions of victims, people displaced, fighting, broken dreams," he said.
"But I think now we have reached a moment of hope."
Under the agreement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) must hand over its weapons to United Nations monitors within six months.
The FARC\’s members — an estimated 7,000 or so — will gather in "normalization zones" for a demobilization process.
The sides also agreed to government action against "criminal organizations" blamed for fueling the conflict.
The United States congratulated Colombia. "We will stand ready to help the Colombian people as they work toward a just and lasting peace," said US National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
The European Union\’s foreign representative Federica Mogherini in a statement called it a "a turning point in the Colombian peace process."
"Now all efforts must be devoted to reaching a final comprehensive agreement that will pave the way to durable peace in the country" and justice for victims, she said.
The Colombian conflict started in the 1960s as a rural uprising for land rights that spawned the communist FARC.
The conflict has drawn in various leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs over the decades.
It 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 deal resolves one of the final points in peace talks between the government and the FARC, the country\’s largest rebel group.
However, the means of implementing the final peace deal remain to be settled after three-and-a-half years of negotiations.
The two sides said they would wait for the courts to rule on whether a referendum can be held to endorse the accord, and would accept the court\’s decision.
Although peace with the FARC would virtually end the conflict, other armed groups are still operating in Colombia.
A bid to hold peace talks between the government and the second-biggest rebel group, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), has stumbled because of its alleged kidnappings.
"The activity of the ELN above all and the criminal gangs means that we cannot yet talk of a complete end to the armed conflict," said Kyle Johnson, Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group.
"It will be the end of Colombia\’s biggest armed conflict, but not all of them."