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U.S. aid to Colombia will shift from war to peace, Obama says

The United States, after helping to finance Colombia's war against guerrillas for 15 years, on Thursday announced plans to boost aid for the South American nation's historic peace pact.

President Obama, speaking at the White House and with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at his side, said Colombia would have "no greater friend" than the U.S. as the Bogota government moves toward formally ending the oldest conflict in the Americas.

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Obama said he will ask for $450 million for Colombia in his upcoming budget, more than the roughly $300 million that the Latin nation receives annually from Washington now but short of the $500 million that Santos was seeking.

Santos hopes to sign a peace deal with the last remaining leftist guerrilla faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, by late March. Negotiations have been taking place in Havana, Cuba, for the last four years. The Colombian government and guerrillas have been fighting for half a century.

Santos and Obama said they were replacing the 15-year-old, $10-billion Plan Colombia, the controversial U.S. aid package heavy on military assistance, with Peace Colombia, with an emphasis on humanitarian aid directed at post-conflict issues.

Colombia faces a host of problems, including reintegrating former combatants into civilian life, breaking ties between militias and drug traffickers, providing more than 7 million victims with reparations and promoting rural development for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, who were disproportionately harmed by the war.

"Just as the United States has been Colombia's partner in a time of war," Obama said, "we will be your partner in waging peace."

Santos thanked the U.S. and acknowledged the hurdles that he has faced and continues to face in reconciling his country, once one of the most violent in Latin America but now relatively prosperous.

"Many people warned me it was political suicide," Santos said. "Making war is so much easier than making peace."

U.S. officials acknowledge they remain concerned that peace will not necessarily slow the steady flow of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, the major consumer of the illicit drug.

For more news about global affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson

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