Colombians narrowly reject peace deal with FARC rebels

Colombians narrowly reject a peace deal with Marxist insurgents, plunging the nation into uncertainty and handing a major defeat to President Juan Manuel Santos, who vows to keep a ceasefire in place and not give up his efforts to end the 52-year war.

President Santos says ceasefire will remain, will meet with parties Monday to work toward peace after No vote

A supporter of the peace accord cries as she follows on a giant screen in Bogota the results of a referendum to decide whether to support the deal. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

Colombians narrowly rejected a peace deal with Marxist insurgents on Sunday, plunging the nation into uncertainty and handing a major defeat to President Juan Manuel Santos, who vowed to keep a ceasefire in place and not give up his efforts to end the 52-year war.

Santos accepted the No result, and said he would meet with all political parties on Monday to find a way forward for the peace process. 

"I won't give up. I'll continue to search for peace until the last moment of my mandate," Santos said in a televised address recognizing his defeat.

The vote will not affect Colombia's stability, he said. 

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos votes in the referendum on a peace accord to end the 52-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state Sunday. Santos recognized defeat later that night, but says he 'won't give up' in search for peace. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Before the referendum result, the 53-year-old president said he had No Plan B and would return Colombia to war if the No vote won.

A few states where the Yes vote was winning by a wide margin were still counting ballots, but as the hours passed the chances of reversing the result were fading. Pre-election polls had pointed to the Yes vote winning by an almost 2-to-1 margin.

'Peace will triumph': FARC leader

A victory would have allowed him to start implementing the deal painstakingly negotiated in Cuba over the past four years to end the longest-running conflict in the Americas.

But the No camp won 50.23 per cent to 49.76 per cent, as votes were counted from 99.59 per cent of voting stations.

FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono said on Sunday that the insurgent group maintained its desire for peace despite the No win.
"The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future," Londono, known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, said to journalists in Havana. "To the Colombian people who dream of peace, count on us. Peace will triumph." 

Opponents of the pact believed it was too soft on the FARC rebels by allowing them to re-enter society, form a political party and escape traditional jail sentences.

They want a renegotiation of the deal.

FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko, smokes a cigar while watching TV results of the referendum in Havana, Cuba. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

"I voted No. I don't want to teach my children that everything can be forgiven," said Alejandro Jaramillo, 35, angered that the rebels would not serve jail time. 

Sunday's vote had asked for a simple Yes or No on whether Colombians supported the accord signed last Monday by 
Santos and Timochenko.

Uribe says rebels should pay for crimes

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, whose numbers were halved to about 7,000 in recent years because of a U.S.-backed military offensive, had agreed to turn in weapons and fight for power at the ballot box instead.

"We all want peace, no one wants violence," said influential former president Alvaro Uribe who led the No campaign. "We insist on corrections so there is respect for the constitution... We want to contribute to a national accord and be heard."

Colombian anti-drug troops stand guard near a confiscated opium plantation in September 1997, following an apparent attack by FARC rebels. (Reuters)

Under the accord, the FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964, would have been able to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections and have 10 unelected congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

It would also have given up its role in the lucrative illegal drug trade and taken part in reforming rural Colombia.

But controversially, many rebel leaders who ordered killings, bombings and displacements would have had to appear before a special tribunal that could sentence them to alternative punishments like clearing land mines.

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

Supporters of No vote in Bogota celebrate after rejection of the peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. (John Vizcaino/Reuters)

The bloodshed, at its worst, saw the FARC positioned close to the capital and the state on the verge of collapse. Battles between the guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug gangs and the army raged in the countryside and there were atrocities committed on all sides. 

The highly polarized campaign exposed how steep a challenge the government would face implementing the 297-page accord and bringing about real reconciliation. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, and many considered provisions in the accord that would spare the rebels jail time an insult to victims of the long-running conflict.

Low voter turnout to referendum

Turnout to Sunday's referendum was low, less than the 40 per cent seen in recent congressional elections, a further sign to some analysts that Colombians' enthusiasm for the ambitious accord was lacking.

Turnout was especially affected along the Caribbean coast, where support for the government is highest, as a result of heavy rainfall from Hurricane Matthew, which made it impossible to set up a few polling stations in La Guajira peninsula.

In the past month, ever since the deal was announced in Cuba after gruelling negotiations, the government had spent heavily on television ads and staged concerts and peace rallies around the country to get out the vote. It even enrolled the help of U2's Bono and former Beatle Ringo Starr. And for the first time in an election, it made ballots available in Braille so visually impaired Colombians could vote.

With files from The Associated Press