Colombians vote on deal to end decades of bloodshed

Colombians voted Sunday on whether to put 52 years of bloody conflict behind them by ratifying a peace accord between the state and communist FARC rebels.

Bogota: Colombians voted Sunday on whether to put 52 years of bloody conflict behind them by ratifying a peace accord between the state and communist FARC rebels.

The accord will effectively end what is seen as the last major armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

"Peace is the way for our children and grandchildren to have a better country," President Juan Manuel Santos said as he voted.

"We Colombians must all play a role in this historic change."

His government says it has no Plan B if voters reject the accord, agreed after four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba.

But polls indicate it will pass by a wide margin.

"Colombia is betting everything on this plebiscite, socially, economically and politically," said Jorge Restrepo, director of conflict analysis center CERAC.Colombians are sick of war, even though many resent making concessions to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has carried out killings, kidnappings and extortion.

"My parents were born into the conflict in a town where there were lots of kidnappings by the guerrillas... The houses were full of bullet holes," said one voter, Lina Romero, 25.

"I want the `Yes` vote to win so that if I have children one day, they will not have to live in war," she added.

Jose Gomez, a retiree of 70, said he had voted `No.`

"It is absurd to reward those criminals, drug-traffickers and killers who have made the country a disaster for the past 50 years," he said.

"If you reward crime, what moral authority do you have to tell a thief not to steal your mobile phone?"

Polls opened at 1300 GMT across the country and were due to close at 2100 GMT, with a result expected soon afterward.

Around 35 million of Colombia`s 48 million people were eligible to vote.

Opinion surveys by pollsters Datexco and Ipsos Napoleon Franco, published on October 26, indicated the `Yes" vote would win by a margin of around 20 percent.

Both polls indicated a `No` vote of about 35 percent.

"Peace is exciting, but the Havana accords are disappointing," said the leader of the `No` campaign, former president Alvaro Uribe.The deal signed on October 26 by Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known as "Timochenko," calls for the 5,675 FARC rebels to disarm in six months and convert into a political group.

It is guaranteed to have at least 10 seats in Colombia`s Congress.

The accord covers justice and compensation and an end to the cocaine production that has fueled the conflict.

There is an amnesty for some FARC members but not for the worst crimes such as massacres, torture and rape.

The FARC promised in a statement on Saturday that it would provide "material compensation for victims."

The accord virtually ends the conflict, even though the government has so far failed to start peace talks with a smaller leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which it accuses of holding hostages.The FARC launched its guerrilla war on the government in 1964, after a peasant uprising that was crushed by the army.

The ideological and territorial conflict drew in several leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.

Colombian authorities estimate the conflict has left 260,000 people dead, 45,000 missing and nearly seven million displaced.

The FARC have apologized to their victims and held emotional face-to-face reconciliations over recent days.

One such encounter took place on Friday in La Chinita, northwestern Colombia, where a FARC massacre at a fundraising party in 1994 left 35 dead.

"The best thing there can be is peace," said Maria Laureana Mosquera Palacios, 64. She was widowed with four children when her husband was among those killed.

"No more massacres. No more wickedness."