herald

Saturday 23 September 2017

President makes historic jungle visit to new Colombia peace zone

President Higgins arrives in the city of Bogota in Columbia at the start of his official visit to the country
President Higgins arrives in the city of Bogota in Columbia at the start of his official visit to the country

President Michael D Higgins has become the first Head of State to visit a fully demobilised zone in Colombia.

He was accompanied by two members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) for the trip into the jungle.

It comes two months after Colombia's biggest and richest guerilla group Farc and the Colombian government reached an agreement on a peace process.

It is hoped the deal will bring to an end a conflict which has lasted more than five decades and cost 250,000 lives.

Disarming

As part of the Colombian Peace Agreement, some 7,000 Farc members are undergoing a demobilisation phase, set up in 26 rural assembly zones across the country.

The disarming phase is due to begin in the coming weeks, while the removal of landmines around Farc areas is ongoing.

A large presence of Colombian special forces was organised for the safety of President Higgins' visit, while two members of the ERU flew over from Dublin in recent days.

President Higgins visited the zone in Anori with Minister Leo Vardakar. The area has 128 ex-combatants but dense fog delayed the trip for several hours after his Black Hawk helicopter was grounded - leaving them both waiting in Medellin.

Contacts have been made between Ireland and the Colombian Government in recent years to exchange expertise based on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo met with President Higgins on Sunday.

Mr Jaramillo said he had been in contact with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness on a number of occasions, meeting him three years ago in Bogota for a "practical and sensible" discussion on the peace process in the North.

One of the most important aspects of the agreement is justice for the victims on issues such as war crimes and most forms of serious human rights violations.

Prison

A Special Peace Tribunal will be in place to deal with such issues - with those who have committed crimes given the opportunity to give the full truth of their crimes to avoid regular prison and instead be sentenced with serious restrictions.

The tribunal process is expected to be a long and expensive one, with Ireland committing €3m over the next five years in support, as part of the EU Trust Fund.

Further funding to the UN will also be provided by the Irish Government.

President Higgins is due to give a keynote address on the peace agreement at the National University of Colombia later this afternoon.

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