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Colombia holds referendum to approve peace deal with FARC rebels

Guillermo Legaria, AFP | University students rally in support of the "yes" campaign in Bogota, on September 30, 2016 ahead of a referendum on a historic peace deal.

Colombians look set to back a peace accord with FARC rebels in a referendum on Sunday, the final hurdle to a deal that would end 52 years of war in the South American country.

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The vote asks for a simple “yes” or “no” on whether Colombians support the accord signed last week by President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on peace, and the rebel commander known as Timochenko.

“All the polls that have been conducted since August have consistently put the ‘yes’ side in the lead,” said journalist Dimitri O’Donnell from the capital of Bogota. “Turnout is expected to be high when the polls open at 8am local time here.”

The peace process calls for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to lay down its arms, return to civil society and form a political party.

The Marxist-inspired guerrillas, whose numbers dwindled to about 7,000 in recent years due to a US-backed military offensive, have agreed to fight for power at the ballot box instead of with bullets.

After four years of negotiations in Havana, the final agreement was applauded round the world. Recent polls show about two-thirds of voters are likely to ratify it.

Influential former President Alvaro Uribe has led the “no” camp, arguing that rebels should pay for crimes in jail and never be given congressional seats. But most Colombians, including even some who see the accord as too soft on the FARC, seem convinced that an imperfect peace is better than more war.

“Even one less death is enough of an argument,” said Sandra Guevara, a 42-year-old secretary. “I’m voting yes because I’m betting on hope, to guarantee my son can see a better country.”

Under the accord the FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964, can compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections, and has 10 unelected congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

Many feel the accord concedes too much to a rebel army that has suffered significant military defeats in recent years, and have lost support among populations.

For decades, the FARC bankrolled the longest-running conflict in the Americas through kidnapping and extortion, spreading a sense of terror that left few Colombians unaffected. The conflict claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced millions of people.

“The ‘no’ campaign has bitterly opposed giving FARC rebels any amnesty whatsoever,” O’Donnell said in reference to provisions in the peace plan that will allow some fighters to avoid sentences if they confess their crimes.

If the peace accord is approved on Sunday, Santos will likely turn his focus toward a much-needed tax reform and other measures to compensate for a drop in oil income, as well as possible talks with the smaller ELN rebel group.

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(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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