A new peace deal has ended five decades of conflict in Colombia: So what's it all about?

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After half a century of bloodshed, Colombians have embarked on a new path to settle their political differences with the signing of a historic peace accord between the government and leftist rebels.

So why is this such an historic moment and is the peace likely to last?

Why did the conflict last over 50 years?

(Fernando Vergara/AP)
Farc soldiers in a jungle encampment (Fernando Vergara/AP)

The 1948 assassination of populist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to a political bloodletting known as "The Violence". Tens of thousands died and peasant groups joined with communists to arm themselves. A 1964 military attack on their main encampment led to the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

FARC has sought to make the conservative oligarchy share power and prioritised land reform in a country where more than five million people have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers.

FARC lost popularity as its methods turned nasty, including kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its uprising.

Over 220,000 people were killed in the conflict.

Ingrid Betancourt(Martial Trezzini/AP)
Ingrid Betancourt was freed in 2008 (Martial Trezzini/AP)

Most of these have been civilians. In the past two decades, most of the killings were inflicted by the militias, which made peace with the government in 2003.

FARC abducted ranchers, politicians and soldiers and often held them for years in jungle prison camps. Its captives included former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US military contractors, all of whom were rescued in 2008.

What happened during the peace ceremony?

Juan Manuel Santos gives a peace pin to Rodrigo Londono(Fernando Vergara/AP)
Santos gave his peace pin to Londono during the ceremony (Fernando Vergara/AP)

President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), formally signed the agreement before a crowd of 2,500 foreign dignitaries and special guests, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US secretary of state John Kerry.

Many in the audience, all dressed in white, had tears in their eyes as Mr Santos removed from his lapel a pin shaped like a white dove which he has been wearing for years and handed it over to his former adversary, who fastened it to his own shirt.

It was one of many symbolic gestures during the 90-minute ceremony overlooking the colonial ramparts of Cartagena that filled Colombians with hope and optimism for the work ahead to implement a 297-page accord that took four years to negotiate.

Is the deal set in stone?

Demonstrators protest against the peace accord (Ariana Cubillos/AP)
(Ariana Cubillos/AP)

The deal's first test will be a weekend referendum in which voters are being asked to ratify or reject the deal.

If it passes, as expected, Colombia will move on to the thornier and still uncertain task of reconciliation.

If the accord is accepted by Colombian voters in Sunday's referendum, as polls say it will, the FARC's estimated 7,000 fighters would have to turn over their weapons to a team of United Nations-sponsored observers within six months.

A much tougher challenge will be reconciliation, a process that will require rebels and state agents who want to avoid jail to confess to war crimes committed during a 52-year conflict marred by brutalities on both sides.

In the longer term, the two sides have drafted an ambitious agenda to hasten the development of Colombia's long-neglected countryside and rid it of illegal coca crops that starting in the 1980s strengthened the FARC - and some say morally corrupted it - while other insurgencies across Latin America fell to the wayside.