By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia's government peace negotiators hit back on Thursday at critics of a deal to end half a century of war with leftist FARC guerrillas, saying the cost of bringing the rebel fighters into society was much lower than spending on the conflict.
The government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement that effectively ends a 52-year conflict that led to the deaths of more than 220,000 people and left millions displaced.
Opponents of the deal, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, say it gives rebels amnesty for too many crimes and is unfair to law-abiding citizens because it calls for subsidizing fighters as they leave jungle and mountain hideouts to look for work.
The agreement must now be approved by Colombians in an Oct. 2 referendum, and the government must win support from many who would prefer to have defeated the guerrillas through military force to avenge years of kidnappings and attacks.
The team that spent nearly four years negotiating with the FARC in Havana held a news conference to defend the deal, saying the government and society must help integrate the fighters, some who have spent decades in camps.
"This is for Colombia, so that what happened in Central America does not happen here - that we abandon them after they lay down their weapons and they end up in criminal groups or taking up weapons again," said Senator Roy Barreras, one of the negotiators.
Violent crime has increased sharply in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala since guerrillas and other armed groups were demobilized in the 1990s, a crisis some blame on the failure to help fighters adjust to civilian life.
Part of the plan to help the FARC fighters includes paying them 90 percent of Colombia's minimum wage as they emerge from their hideouts. The negotiators compared the monthly $200 subsidy to the thousands of dollars spent on each army bombing raid.
"War is much more expensive, even without counting the human cost," Barreras said.
The 297-page peace agreement will be sent to Colombia's Congress on Thursday for approval. President Juan Manuel Santos and a FARC representative will sign it before the October referendum, the negotiators said.
Most opinion polls suggest Colombians will back the deal, but the nation is deeply divided and caught in a heated debate over what sort of justice the rebels should face.
Under the agreement, the rebels and government soldiers will receive amnesty for all but the gravest crimes, an arrangement similar to one Uribe struck with right-wing paramilitary groups when he was in office.
If the deal is approved, FARC will have non-voting representation in Congress until 2018 and can participate in elections. From then on, the former rebels will have to win votes like candidates in any other political party.
Once the agreement is signed, a 180-day countdown begins toward the full demobilization of the fighters, a process that the international community will monitor.
Both the White House and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton congratulated Colombia on the deal and promised U.S. support for implementing it.
"As president, I'll ensure that the United States remains their partner in that process," Clinton said. "The people of Colombia deserve nothing less."
(Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)