Colombians vote on peace deal after polarized campaign

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The guns have been silenced, the agreement signed and a historic handshake between former enemies made in front of the entire world. Now it's time for Colombians to decide whether or not to support a peace deal with the country's largest rebel movement.

Polls taken before Sunday's referendum, in which voters will be asked whether they want to ratify or reject a deal ending a half century of hostilities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, show the "yes" vote favored by an almost two-to-one margin.

But the government isn't taking victory for granted amid a highly polarized campaign that has exposed how steep a challenge it faces implementing the 297-page accord and bringing about real reconciliation. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, who the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many consider provisions in the accord that would spare the rebels jail time an insult to the 220,000 killed and almost 8 million displaced by the long-running conflict.

In the past month, ever since the deal was announced in Cuba after four years of grueling negotiations, the government has been spending heavily on television ads and staging concerts and peace rallies around the country to get out the vote. They've even enrolled the help of U2's Bono and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, and for the first time in an election it's making available in braille thousands of ballots so blind Colombians can vote.

"We don't want anyone to be feeling excluded because this is an important decision," said Luisa Fernanda Morena, a 30-year-old volunteer preparing the materials at the National Institute for the Blind.

For the referendum to be ratified at least 13 percent of the electorate, or 4.5 million voters, must cast "yes" ballots. Turnout is expected to be low, no higher than the 40 percent seen in recent congressional elections, a sign to some analysts that Colombians enthusiasm for implementing the ambitious accord is lacking.

The opposition, led by powerful ex-President Alvaro Uribe, argues that the government is appeasing the FARC and setting a bad example that criminal gangs will seize on.

But the FARC in recent days have made an effort to show their commitment to peace is real. Twice this week leaders of the group traveled to areas hard hit by the violence to apologize for massacres committed by their troops in the course of the conflict and discuss with communities how they can compensate victims.

"All of us in life have committed mistakes, some with consequences more serious than others," FARC leader Ivan Marquez said Friday at a ceremony in the northern Colombian town where rebels in 1994 disrupted a street party with gunfire, killing 35. "There's nothing to lose in recognizing it. Speaking the pure and clean truth heals the soul's wounds, no matter how deep they are."

On Saturday, in the presence of United Nations observers, they voluntarily destroyed 620 kilograms of grenades and light explosives. They also said they would compensate victims with financial resources and land holdings accumulated during the war.

Although Santos wasn't required to call for a vote ratifying the accord — some of his advisers and the FARC itself opposed the idea — the outcome will be binding.

Only if it is ratified will the FARC's roughly 7,000 fighters begin moving to 27 concentration zones where over six months they will gradually turn over their weapons to U.N. observers and prepare for their reintegration into civilian life.


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