Colombia’s FARC kicks off last congress as guerrilla army

YARI PLAINS, Colombia (AP) — The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kicked off its last conference as a rebel army Saturday as it looks to transition into a political movement following the signing of a peace accord to end more than a half-century of hostilities.

The FARC’s top leader, Rodrigo Londono, addressed about 500 mostly unarmed and semi-uniformed guerrillas who had arrived from all parts of Colombia to attend the meeting. Speaking from a giant stage planted in the desolate plains of southern Colombia, the bearded leader known by his alias Timochenko said that over the next week commanders will ratify a peace accord reached with the government last month and debate political strategy going forward.

“If our adversaries want to think they won the war, that’s up to them,” Timochenko said in his inaugural address. “For the FARC, our biggest satisfaction will always be that peace has won.”

Timochenko and President Juan Manuel Santos will sign the accord next week in the city of Cartagena. After that Colombians will be asked in an Oct. 2 referendum to ratify or reject the deal.

This the FARC’s 10th conference as a rebel army and the first not held in secret. Instead of discussing battlefield strategy, the FARC must settle on a new name for their political movement and deliberate on who it wants to represent it in 10 specially reserved seats in congress created for the group in exchange for laying down its weapons.

For days this makeshift camp has been buzzing with activity as rebels hastily constructed structures to house their comrades and hundreds of journalists who have arrived by way of a long, treacherous dirt road to record the encounter. For many rebels who’ve spent their lives in the jungle, the meeting is also an opportunity to be reunited with comrades and family members, some of whom they hadn’t seen for years.

“This is a historic moment because the history of Colombia has always been one of war,” said a 29-year-old rebel who goes by her nom de guerre Gina as she launched her baby into the air. “This moment is what every Colombian is waiting for.”

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