BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia may reach an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire with leftist rebels as early as this week, President Juan Manuel Santos said late Tuesday, putting in place the last major building block toward a historic deal to end a half-century of bloodshed.
"We are very close," Santos said at an event in Bogota. "I pray to God that he gives us strength to finish these accords, hopefully this very week."
Santos will travel to Cuba Thursday for the announcement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, according to an official close to the talks. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would also attend. Both sides in January tasked the U.N. with monitoring adherence to an eventual ceasefire and resolving disputes emerging from the expected demobilization of at least 7,000 armed rebels.
Another official said the ceasefire won't start immediately but rather the agreement will outline the steps for it to begin when a final deal is inked. Both sides are also expected to present a blueprint for where the FARC troops will demobilize and begin the process of forming a political party.
Colombia's conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions since 1964. But a 15-year, U.S.-backed military offensive has thinned the rebels' ranks and forced its aging leaders to the negotiating table in 2012.
The talks have been bumpy and extended much longer than Santos or anyone else anticipated. But if a final deal is reached it would bring an end to Latin America's last major insurgency, one that's accused of being a major supplier of cocaine to the U.S., though the much-smaller and more recalcitrant National Liberation Army has a toehold in some areas and could fill the void left by the FARC.
Santos this week said he hoped to ink a final deal by July 20, when Colombia celebrates its declaration of independence from Spain.
Despite the government's optimism, the FARC reefuses to be hemmed in by a deadline.
"Practice has shown setting dates is damaging to the peace process," top FARC commander Rodrigo Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko, said on Twitter.
Once a deal is reached, it must also face a planned referendum in which Colombians will be asked for their endorsement. Opinion polls show the FARC are widely disliked among Colombians and the longer the talks have dragged out frustration with the rebels has been growing, making the prospect of real reconciliation seem more distant.
The president's team of peace negotiators, who returned Tuesday to Havana, wouldn't comment on a possible ceasefire or Santos' travel plans.
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/joshua-goodman