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Colombia, Marxist rebels to sign accord ending 52-year war

President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon of Colombia addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in New York

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist rebel leader Timochenko will use a pen made from a bullet on Monday to sign an agreement ending a half-century war that killed a quarter of a million people and made their nation a byword for violence.

After four years of talks in Havana, Santos, 65, and Timochenko, nom de guerre for 57-year-old revolutionary Rodrigo Londono, will shake hands on Colombian soil for the first time.

Some 2,500 foreign and local dignitaries were to attend the ceremony scheduled for 5pm local time (1800 EST/2200 GMT) in the walled, colonial city of Cartagena.

The agreement to end Latin America’s longest-running war will turn the Farc guerrillas into a political party fighting at the ballot box instead of the battlefield they have occupied since 1964.

“We are going to sign with a bullet-pen … to illustrate the transition of bullets into education and future,” said Santos, who staked his reputation on achieving peace.

Guests, who were asked to wear white, include United Nations head Ban Ki-moon, Cuban President Raul Castro and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“This step that your country is going to take is a giant step,” Kerry said during a visit to a training center for conflict victims, former combatants and other young people.

“Anybody can pick up a gun, blow things up, hurt other people, but it doesn’t take you anywhere,” he said. ” … Peace is hard work.”

Kerry praised Santos and pledged $390m in US funds to help implement the peace pact.

Despite widespread relief at an end to the bloodshed and kidnappings of past decades, the deal has caused divisions in Latin America’s fourth-biggest economy.

Influential former President Alvaro Uribe and others are angry that the accord allows rebels to enter parliament without serving any jail time.

Colombians will vote on Oct 2 on whether to ratify the agreement, but polls show it will pass easily. Around Cartagena on Monday, huge billboards urged a “yes” vote.

Farc, which stands for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, began as a peasant revolt, became a big player in the cocaine trade and at its strongest had 20,000 fighters. Now it must hand over weapons to the United Nations within 180 days.

Colombians are nervous over how the remaining 7,000 rebels will integrate into society, but most are optimistic peace will bring more benefits than problems.

“I can’t believe this day has finally come,” said an excited Juan Gamarra, 43, who sells jewelry in Cartagena.

Colombia has performed better economically than its neighbors in recent years, and peace should reduce security costs and open new areas for mining and oil companies.

But criminal gangs could try to fill the void, landmines hinder development, and rural poverty remains a huge challenge.

With peace achieved, Santos, a member of a wealthy Bogota family, will likely use the political capital to push his economic agenda, especially tax reforms to compensate for a drop in oil income caused by a fall in energy prices.

Big screens to watch the ceremony were being erected around the nation of 49 million people.

“It’s such an important day,” said Duvier, a nom de guerre for a 25-year-old rebel attending Farc  congress last week in the southern Yari Plains that ratified the peace accord. “Now we can fight politically, without blood, without war.”

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