HAVANA Colombia's government and leftist FARC rebels agreed on Tuesday to ask the United Nations Security Council to help monitor and verify a rebel disarmament should the two sides reach a final peace deal to end their 50-year-old war.
"We have decided to request the Security Council of the U.N. to establish as of now such a political mission with unarmed observers for a period of 12 months," the two sides said in a joint statement read in Havana, the site of peace talks for the past three years.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said last year he would make such a request of the United Nations.
The rebels' willingness to make the request jointly with the government is a sign of progress as the two sides aim to reach a comprehensive peace agreement before a March 23 deadline that negotiators set last year.
The Colombians asked that the U.N. body be made up of representatives from Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The international monitors would verify a bilateral ceasefire, preside over the FARC's disarmament, settle any disputes and make recommendations. If needed, international participation could be extended for another year, the statement said.
"We think this is good news today, transcendental news," said Humberto de la Calle, the government's chief negotiator.
Rebel negotiator Ivan Marquez called the agreement a "strong signal."
"Peace in Colombia is possible," Marquez said.
Santos, who staked his 2014 re-election on the peace talks, has been urgently pressing for a deal to end Latin America's longest war, which has killed 220,000 and displaced millions since 1964.
His government and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a breakthrough on Sept. 23, when they set a six-month deadline for a final agreement, but the FARC has been hedging, indicating March 23 was unrealistic.
The talks appeared to regain momentum as Cuban President Raul Castro met with negotiators from both sides on Sunday. Rebel leaders also travelled to Colombia last week to brief combatants in the mountains and jungles.
The final agenda point to be negotiated is on reaching a definitive bilateral ceasefire. They have already reached partial agreements on justice, land reform, combating drug trafficking and legalizing the FARC as a political party.
Any comprehensive agreement would be placed before Colombian voters for approval.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Daniel Trotta, Andrew Hay and Richard Chang)
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