By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia's president and the FARC rebels' top commander will sign a historic ceasefire deal in Havana on Thursday that brings them close to ending the last major leftist insurgency in Latin America after more than five decades of war.
The accord, capping three years of talks, paves the way for a final peace deal to end a conflict born in the 1960s out of frustration with deep socio-economic inequalities and that outlived other major uprisings in the Americas.
"On my way to Havana to silence for ever the guns," said President Juan Manuel Santos on his Twitter feed before the ceremony, which is due to be attended by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was one of many 20th century Latin American guerilla movements inspired by Marxist ideology and the success of the 1959 Cuban revolution. It began as a peasant revolt before exploding into a cocaine-fueled war that killed at least 220,000 and displaced millions.
Most others were either quashed by right-wing military governments or convinced to lay down their arms and join conventional politics by the 1990s, while the FARC went on to wage the Western Hemisphere's longest running war.
Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, are set to sign the ceasefire accord in a televised ceremony at 1200 EDT.
The two sides will complete negotiations for a final deal by July 20, the president said this week.
Santos has staked his legacy on an agreement with the FARC and said it would add as much as two percentage points annually to economic growth in the South American country rich in commodities like oil, coal, gold and coffee.
The two sides have already agreed on most items on the talks agenda in Cuba, including thorny issues such as land reform and participation by former rebels in Colombia's political life.
The ceasefire, which includes terms for the FARC's demobilization, laying down of arms, and security for former fighters, does not begin until the final deal is signed.
The remaining point on the agenda is the terms for overall implementation of a peace accord and how a national referendum on the deal will be organized.
"This accord is a big breakthrough, but much remains to be done," said Adam Isacson of the Washington-based Latin America think tank WOLA. The FARC must work to convince it own ranks of the deal while Santos must convince the Colombian people at large, he said.
The signing ceremony on Thursday will be presided by Cuban President Raul Castro and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, representing countries that mediated the talks.
Also attending are Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, U.S. Special Envoy Bernie Aronson, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
"WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS?"
Santos has promised the final accord will be put to the Colombian people in a plebiscite.
He must win over those skeptical of FARC promises to rejoin civil society, including supporters of hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe who claims a deal will grant guerrillas impunity for war crimes.
Uribe launched a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign in 2002 that helped bring FARC numbers down from 17,000 in its heyday to the 7,000 combatants the government estimates it has today.
Others warn that even after peace with the FARC, formidable challenges remain. The smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) only recently said it will start talks, while gangs born out of right-wing paramilitary groups have taken over drug trafficking routes across the country.
"If FARC members become targets, the peace could collapse," said Tom Long, International Relations lecturer at Reading University. "If some reconstitute themselves as criminal bands, the peace could be meaningless in many parts of Colombia."
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Carlos Vargas in Bogota; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)