OSLO (Reuters) - Colombia’s peace deal with Marxist rebels will help the country battle the cocaine trade, President Juan Manuel Santos said on the eve of collecting a Nobel Peace Prize that he called a “gift from heaven”.
In Oslo for Saturday’s award ceremony, Santos said the end of a five-decade-long guerrilla conflict in which 220,000 people died could have widespread economic and environmental benefits.
“It came like a gift from heaven because it gave us a tremendous push,” he told a news conference, referring to the Nobel award that was announced in October, days after Colombians rejected a first version of the peace deal in a referendum, with many saying it was too lenient on the rebels.
The award helped encourage new talks that led to a revised deal, signed last month between the government and with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Santos said.
Congress approved the deal but Santos has defied calls by the opposition for a new referendum.
Under the peace deal, the FARC promised to help farmers switch to grow legal crops in remote areas where Santos said the authorities were met by “snipers and landmines” when they tried to eradicate coca plantations.
The deal would also reduce attacks on oil pipelines and allow better control over illegal logging and mining.
“There is a very high dividend in terms of the war on drugs and the environment,” Santos said. Despite decades battling the drug’s production, Colombia remains the top exporter of cocaine.
Santos defended the fact that FARC rebel leaders had not been invited to the award ceremony, where he will receive a gold medal, a Nobel diploma and a cheque for 8 million Swedish crowns ($876,000).
The guerrillas face restrictions on leaving Colombia and are listed as terrorists in many countries. Before the prize was announced many people thought it might be shared between Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono.
“They will be here in heart and spirit. There should be no misgivings about the FARC leaders not being here,” Santos said, adding that the FARC would be represented by a Spanish lawyer.
Santos also said he also hoped for progress in peace talks with another, smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army. But he said they first had to release hostages.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy