Colombia sends peace deal to Congress as negotiators defend it

August 24, 2016 2:30 PM EDT

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a Presidential address in Bogota, Colombia, July 18, 2016. Colombian Presidency /Handout via Reuters

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By Helen Murphy and Marc Frank

BOGOTA/HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos sent the text of a peace accord with Marxist FARC rebels to Congress on Thursday in the first step before a plebiscite to end the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

The government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached final agreement on the accord on Wednesday after an entrenched conflict that ravaged the country for more than 50 years, taking around 220,000 lives and leaving millions displaced.

Legislators have 30 days to go over the 297-page text, which will be made public for all Colombians to read before voting on it in an up-or-down referendum on Oct. 2.

Among many other details, the accord lays out the terms under which rebels will disarm and eventually enter civilian life again.

"We are giving the final word to the people," said Santos as he handed the accords, wrapped in a ribbon emblazoned with the colors of Colombia's flag, to the president of Congress.

"Peace is always better than war. It will remove the fear we have all grown up with after so many years. Peace offers opportunities that most Colombians never had."

Santos also declared a definitive ceasefire, although one has been in effect since June.

Most opinion polls suggest Colombians will back the deal, but the nation is deeply divided and caught in a heated debate over what sort of justice the rebels should face.

In Havana earlier on Thursday, government peace negotiators hit back at critics of the deal, telling a news conference the cost of bringing rebel fighters into society and building peace was far less than spending on the conflict.

Opponents of the deal, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, say it gives rebels amnesty for too many crimes and is unfair to law-abiding citizens because it calls for subsidizing fighters as they leave jungle and mountain hideouts to look for work.

The government must win support from many who would prefer to have defeated the guerrillas through military force to avenge years of kidnappings and attacks on civilians.

The team that spent nearly four years negotiating with the FARC in Havana, stressed at their news conference that the government and people from all walks of life must work together to help integrate the fighters into mainstream society.

"This is for Colombia, so that what happened in Central America does not happen here - that we abandon them after they lay down their weapons and they end up in criminal groups or taking up weapons again," said Senator Roy Barreras, one of the negotiators.

Violent crime has increased sharply in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala since guerrillas and other armed groups were demobilized in the 1990s, a crisis some blame on the failure to help fighters adjust to civilian life.

Part of the plan to help the FARC fighters includes paying them 90 percent of Colombia's minimum wage as they emerge from their strongholds. The negotiators compared the monthly $200 subsidy to the thousands of dollars spent on each army bombing raid.

"War is much more expensive, even without counting the human cost," Barreras said.

Under the agreement, the rebels and government soldiers will receive amnesty for all but the gravest crimes, an arrangement similar to one Uribe struck with right-wing paramilitary groups when he was in office.

If the deal is approved, FARC will have non-voting representation in Congress until 2018 and can participate in elections. From then on, the former rebels will have to win votes like candidates in any other political party.

Once the agreement is signed, a 180-day countdown begins toward the full demobilization of the fighters, a process that the international community will monitor.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombia on the deal on Thursday and promised U.S. support for implementing it.

"Even as we mark the end of an era of war, we recognize that the work of achieving a just and lasting peace is only beginning," Obama said.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tom Brown)

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