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BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's government and its last remaining major rebel group signed a cease-fire Monday ahead of Pope Francis' visit this week, an agreement seen as a significant step toward negotiating a permanent peace deal.
The deal struck in Quito, Ecuador — where talks with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have been taking place since February — goes into effect Oct. 1. It runs through Jan. 12 and can be renewed if both sides agree.
Under the cease-fire, the rebels agree to suspend attacks on infrastructure, kidnappings and recruitment of minors. In exchange, the government has vowed to boost protection for social leaders who have recently come under attack and to develop a program that would provide humanitarian aid to rebels, among other measures.
Reconciliation is expected to be a central theme of the trip by Francis, who has lobbied for an end to Colombia's decades-old civil conflict and who is fulfilling a promise to visit if peace was made with the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"The pope is arriving amid a unique moment in our history, as we turn the page on an absurd conflict and look to the future with hope," President Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised address Monday.
More than five decades of conflict involving the two rebel movements, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups have resulted in more than 260,000 deaths, the disappearances of tens of thousands of other people and the displacement of 6 million more.
Under the earlier deal with the government, FARC has turned over its weapons and is reorganizing as a political movement to compete in elections next year.
But negotiations with the more ideological and less centralized ELN have been slower since exploratory talks began more than three years ago.
Unlike FARC, which financed itself through involvement in Colombia's flourishing drug trade, the ELN funds its insurgency mainly through kidnappings and extortion.
Until now, it has refused to abandon those practices, earning the enmity of many Colombians who want Santos to take a tougher line than he did with the FARC.
Labeled a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union, the ELN has also stepped up its attacks on Colombia's energy infrastructure this year.
The cease-fire will be verified by independent observers, the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church.