Colombia takes big step to peace as rebels lay down guns
MESETAS, Colombia (AP):
Guerrillas from Colombia's largest rebel army no longer carry their guns along the road miles from the nearest city, a byway with mud so deep that even earth-moving equipment is paralysed when it rains.
In recent days, each of the rebels stationed at this demobilisation camp carved from Colombia's eastern jungles have relinquished their weapons to United Nations observers and vowed to help end the country's half-century conflict.
President Juan Manuel Santos travelled here Tuesday to join Rodrigo Londono, top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, for a ceremony marking the conclusion of the disarmament process by 7,000 rebels nationwide.
Though hundreds of caches filled with larger weapons and explosives are still being cleared out, the UN on Monday certified that all individual firearms and weapons, except for a small number needed to safeguard the soon-to-disband camps, have been collected 7,132 in total.
At the ceremony in eastern Colombia, UN observers closed the final container holding some of the assault weapons collected at rebel camps nationwide in recent weeks.
"In a world convulsed by old and new forms of violence, by conflicts whose protagonists appear irreconcilable ... a successful process constructing peace in Colombia is also reason for hope and a powerful example for the international community," said Jean Arnault, head of the UN peace mission in Colombia.
The historic feat places the nation one step closer to turning a page on Latin America's longest-running conflict that left at least 250,000 people dead, another 60,000 disappeared and millions displaced.
"This is the most important decision a guerrilla can make, to give up weapons," said Aldo Civico, a professor at Rutgers University and expert in Colombia's conflict.
FARC rebels reached an agreement with Colombia's government last year to give up their weapons and transition into a political party, but implementing that accord has been slow. A national referendum on the agreement failed by a popular vote, congress has struggled to pass laws implementing the revised accords and opposition lawmakers are threatening to overturn key aspects of the deal if they win the presidential election next year.
Controversy has also dogged the weapons hand off, with conservative former President Alvaro Uribe leading a chorus of opponents questioning whether the FARC has turned over its entire arsenal.