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Colombia, FARC Rebel Group Announce Major Breakthrough in Peace Talks

Colombia's president and the top commander of FARC shook hands and agreed to reach a final peace deal — potentially ending five decades of conflict.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top commander of leftist FARC rebels shook hands on Wednesday and agreed to reach a final peace deal within six months in Latin America's longest war.

"The chief of the FARC secretariat and I have agreed that in no more than six months this negotiation should come to an end and we should sign a final agreement," Santos told a ceremony in Havana, the site of peace talks for the past three years.

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have fought the Colombian government for 51 years in a conflict that has killed some 220,000 and displaced millions since 1964.

Cuban President Raul Castro (C), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) and the head of the FARC guerrilla group Timoleon Jimenez, aka Timochenko (R), shaking hands in Havana on September 23, 2015.-- / AFP - Getty Images

"This will not be an easy task because there are still some difficult points to agree. But it is an instruction that we have given to our delegations, that we reach an agreement as soon as possible," Santos said. "We won't fail. The time for peace has arrived."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the development.

"The announcements made today at the peace talks in Havana represent historic progress toward a final peace agreement to end more than 50 years of armed conflict. Peace is now ever closer for the Colombian people and millions of conflict victims," Kerry said in a statement.

He called Santos to congratulate him and his negotiating team.

Related: On World Peace Day, Colombia Looks Forward to War-Free Future

Santos and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by the nom de guerre "Timochenko," signed an agreement that would create special tribunals to try former combatants in the war.

Santos and Timochenko greeted each other in a handshake likely to stand as a lasting image in Colombia. Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the meeting, joined his hands to theirs.

"It's now up to both parties to multiply efforts to construct the consensus that will bring a bilateral ceasefire, agreements about abandoning arms, and the transformation of the FARC into a legal political movement," Timochenko said.

Castro called the agreement a "significant step" and said Cuba's contribution was modest. He said peace was "not only desirable but indispensable."

Said Santos: "We are adversaries, on opposite shores but today here joined in interest of peace." He asked the negotiators to finish up peace accord as "quickly as possible."

The two sides also announced the formation of a truth commission, a deal on reparations for war victims and an amnesty for combatants except those who committed war crimes. Santos' visit marked the first time the president has traveled to Cuba since the negotiations began nearly three years ago.

"The end of the conflict will be a matter of a few months," Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said on Twitter. "The construction of peace in our land will take years."

Previously, the sides had reached partial agreements on land reform, political participation for ex-rebels and an end to the illegal drug trade. In addition, the two have reached a side agreement on removing landmines from the battlefield.

The insurgent group of about 8,000 combatants, down from 17,000 in their heyday, is considered a terrorist group by United States and European Union. The FARC grew out of a 1960s peasant movement demanding land reform, and has been fighting successive governments ever since. The struggle has created one of the world's highest internally displaced populations.

Reuters contributed.