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Colombia war zones split over rejected peace deal

The areas hardest hit by Colombia's half-century conflict were deeply divided over a peace deal between the Farc rebels and the government rejected by voters in a shock referendum defeat.

[BOGOTA] The areas hardest hit by Colombia's half-century conflict were deeply divided over a peace deal between the Farc rebels and the government rejected by voters in a shock referendum defeat.

The deal, which failed Sunday when Colombians narrowly voted against it, broadly split the country between those who have experienced the war first-hand and those who have mainly watched it on the news, experts said.

"The rural world, which has lived through the conflict, bet on peace. The urban world said 'No'" said Ariel Avila of Colombia's Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

"Because urban Colombia didn't live through combat, air strikes... it doesn't see the need" for making concessions to the leftist rebels, he told AFP.

But even areas that endured the war were deeply split over the deal, the product of nearly four years of arduous negotiations between President Juan Manuel Santos's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

"We're polarised in many ways. Even victims of the conflict are polarised," said political analyst Juan David Cardenas of La Sabana University in Bogota.

Opponents of the deal attacked it for being too soft on the Farc, a Marxist guerrilla group launched in 1964.

The prospect of light sentences with no jail time and the Farc's relaunch as a political party did not sit well with Colombians who associate the group with civilian massacres, hostage seizures and sowing terror in the countryside.

The promise of reparations for victims and a special system of courts to try crimes committed during the conflict failed to sway many of the millions of Colombians bereaved, maimed or uprooted by a war that has killed 260,000 people.

It was no surprise the "No" vote won in conservative areas such as the central coffee-growing region or the north-western department of Antioquia, the stronghold of former president Alvaro Uribe - the deal's chief opponent.

But Mr Santos, who has staked his legacy on the peace process, and Farc leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez, who guided the guerrillas toward a negotiated exit, got a rude upset in other regions where they expected strong support.

In Marquetalia - the central region where the Farc was launched in the aftermath of a peasant uprising crushed by the army - the "No" camp took 63 per cent of the vote.

And rejection of the deal was "overwhelming" in some areas the Farc has traditionally controlled, such as Norte de Santander and Arauca on the Venezuelan border, said Mr Cardenas.

"There was a hidden, underground mindset among people who refused to say openly that they would vote 'No'. They never supported amnesty, political participation," he told AFP.

Still, the electoral map featured some unexpected paradoxes.

For example, in the north-western town of Bojaya - the scene of a Farc massacre that killed 79 people in 2002 - almost 96 per cent of voters cast "Yes" ballots.

Every municipality in the western department of Cauca, one of the conflict's main battlegrounds because of its lucrative cocaine trade, voted "Yes". And in Mitu, a southern city seized by 1,500 rebels in 1998, more than 75 per cent of people voted in favour of the deal.

Eimer Sandino, a 29-year-old driver from San Vicente del Caguan, a southern region that has traditionally had a strong Farc presence, said opposition to the deal was rigid in his area.

"You want Colombia to be different, for your children's future. But it's difficult to kick-start people's thinking. The war has affected lots of families," he said.

But in the end, the area voted nearly 63 per cent in favour of the deal - well above the nationwide figure of 49.78 per cent.

"I have lived through the shipwreck of war, and I am for peace," said Naime Cometa, a 58-year-old merchant, explaining her vote.

"Here in these remote areas, the guerrillas were the law."