By Julia Symmes Cobb and Carlos Vargas
BOGOTA (Reuters) - A pledge from Colombia's government and FARC rebels to end Latin America's longest war by next March brought both applause and doubts among a people bruised by 51 years of death, disappearances and damage to the economy.
Meeting for the first time on Wednesday night, President Juan Manuel Santos and guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, shook on a deal to reach peace within six months and disarm the rebels sixty days after.
They agreed on a special court to try the worst crimes of the 51-year conflict, from sex abuse and kidnapping to torture and executions, but a possible amnesty for other combatants.
"To see the president shaking hands with Timochenko is a signal that this time it is possible to sign a peace deal," said nurse Patricia Vargas, 33, referring to past failed attempts to reach peace. "It has cost us so much."
But amid the plaudits, which also came from the United States and the Vatican, center-right leader Santos, 64, is also likely to face internal criticism that he is going soft on the FARC after 220,000 deaths and millions displaced.
Beginning in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired peasant rights movement, the FARC lost popular support over the violent years that followed, especially as it turned increasingly to drug-trafficking in the cocaine-producing South American nation.
"They surrendered to the FARC," pensioner Alfonso Llana lamented, strolling through a Bogota park with his wife, as news of the Santos-Timochenko meeting in Havana spread.
"If peace means that they stop shooting, that'll probably happen, but I don't think the conflict will end there," Llana added, expressing a widespread fear former rebels would re-group as crime gangs rather than seek socially useful jobs.
The government has said a deal may add up to 2 percent to GDP, as the legal economy expands into once dangerous areas and rebel attacks on infrastructure cease.
Some Colombians expressed anxiety politics might ensnare the potential deal, which voters must approve at a referendum before it becomes law in the nation of 47 million people that is Latin America's fourth-largest economy.
The center-right Santos was re-elected last year on a promise to bring peace, but he faces substantial opposition in Congress, most notably from influential ex-president and current senator Alvaro Uribe, a vehement critic of the negotiations.
Uribe said in a statement that Wednesday's accord on justice, which would allow both rebels and soldiers to have reduced sentences in exchange for confessions, was tantamount to equating brave members of the security forces with terrorists.
He also criticized Santos for failing to guarantee that FARC funds will be used to compensate victims of the war.
Those who confess serious crimes will be detained for five to eight years in "special conditions", while those who belatedly acknowledge their role will face ordinary jail terms of five to eight years, according to a preliminary deal on justice signed by Santos and Timochenko in Havana.
People who deny culpability but are convicted will get up to 20 years.
The special tribunals, to be run by Colombian magistrates as well as foreign jurists, will be tasked with finding answers for victims and sentencing perpetrators of serious war crimes.
The increased prospects for peace delighted the United States, which has spent billions of dollars on military aid and drug-fighting efforts in Colombia.
That has helped reduce the rebels' numbers to about 8,000.
A spokesman for Pope Francis, who pleaded with Colombia's government and rebels to reach peace during a mass in Havana on Sunday, said he would also be happy at the advance.
Shopkeeper Genoveva Pataqiva, however, said Colombians were bound to be cynical, given numerous false starts towards peace in the past and so much suffering.
"We're tired of all these promises and talks - they're going to sign peace in six months? We'll see," said Pataqiva, 66.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Clarence Fernandez)