Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commanders have announced an important breakthrough in peace talks that sets the stage to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict within the next six months.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), said they had overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to compensate victims and punish belligerents for human rights abuses.

Santos had made a surprise trip to Havana, where the talks are being held, for the signing ceremony.

It is the first time he has appeared at the negotiations he set in motion nearly three years ago, which he has staked his presidency on successfully concluding.

It was also the first time he had met FARC leader Timoleon 'Timochenko' Jimenez, with whom he shook hands after the deal was signed.

Santos said Colombia's government and FARC have reached an agreement to sign a definitive peace deal within six months.

Fighters that confess their crimes, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive up to eight years of restrictions on their liberty in restricted areas still be to determined.

Papal intervention

Santos flew earlier in the day to Havana, where talks have been going on for nearly three years, to make the announcement.

Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman, reporting from the Cuban capital, said Santos had announced March 23, 2016 as the date for a peace deal to be signed and that fighters would then have 60 days to lay down their arms. 

The breakthrough came after Pope Francis, in a visit to Cuba this week, warned the two sides that they did not have the right to fail in their best chance at peace in decades.

"I want to recognise and value the step that the FARC has taken today," said Santos, seated next to Timochenko and Cuban President Raul Castro.

"We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace."

Negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for fighters to demobilise, hand over their weapons and provide reparations to their victims.

Santos has also promised he will give Colombians the chance to voice their opinion in a referendum and any deal must also clear Congress.

War crimes

As part of talks in Cuba stretching nearly three years, both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for fighters who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking.

Further cementing expectations of a deal, FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire in July and has been working with Colombia's military on a programme to remove tens of thousands of rebel-planted land mines.

But amid the slow, but steady progress, one issue had seemed almost insurmountable: How to compensate victims and punish FARC commanders for human rights abuses in light of international conventions Colombia has signed, and almost unanimous public rejection of the fighters.

FARC, whose fighters have thinned to an estimated 6,400 from a peak of 21,000 in 2002, have long insisted they have not committed any crimes and are not abandoning the battlefield only to end up in jail.

The group said its fighters will only consent to prison time if leaders of Colombia's military, which has a litany of war crimes to its name, and the nation's political elite are locked up as well.

Source: AP