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Pope embraces Colombia victims and ex-fighters in peace bid

Pope Francis has brought together thousands of victims of Colombia's 50-year conflict with their former persecutors, presiding over a prayer for reconciliation in the hope of solidifying the country's peace process and healing still-fresh wounds.

In the highlight of his Colombia pilgrimage, Francis flew into an area once besieged by left-wing rebels to pray with victims and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their assailants.

And he urged the ex-fighters to have the courage to seek that forgiveness, saying peace would fail unless both sides reconciled.

Looming large over the ceremony in the central city of Villavicencio was a poignant symbol of the conflict: a mutilated statue of Christ rescued from a church that was destroyed in a 2002 rebel mortar attack in the impoverished town of Bojaya.

The battle-scarred torso, missing its arms and legs, was front and centre on stage as a tangible reminder of one of the war's worst massacres.

"As we look at it, we remember not only what happened on that day but also the immense suffering, the many deaths and broken lives and all the blood spilled in Colombia these past decades," Francis said at the foot of the statue.

He told the crowd he wanted to come to Villavicencio to pray and weep with them and help them to forgive.

He embraced victims and perpetrators alike, calling for truth and justice, saying families deserved to know the fates of missing relatives and children recruited to fight.

But he also called for mercy, saying truth should never lead to revenge.

He heard four heart-wrenching stories of courage in the face of loss and of guilt-ridden fighters who were now working to amend their wrongs.

Pastora Mira lost her father when she was six and later a husband, daughter and son over the next few decades.

She recounted how three days after burying her youngest son in 2005, she cared for an injured paramilitary fighter in the son's bed.

Upon seeing the boy's photo he confessed to having been one of the killers and told of the torture that preceded his death.

"I thank God and little mother Mary for giving me the strength to treat him without causing harm and in spite of my incredible pain," Ms Mira said as Francis looked on in solemn silence.

Francis has made reconciliation the central theme of his five-day trip after promising to visit the country upon the signing of last year's peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The event drew thousands of victims from all walks of life - soldiers who lost limbs clearing landmines, mothers whose children were forcibly recruited by the rebels never to be seen again and farmers driven off their land by the right-wing paramilitaries.

"When you forgive you still have the scar of the wound, but yes, I have definitely forgiven from my heart," said Paulina Mahecha, whose daughter disappeared in 2004 while studying to be a nurse.

She arrived at the event bearing photos of her daughter around her neck and a banner accusing the army, police and paramilitary groups over her disappearance.

Juan Enrique Montiel, a former paramilitary member, said he realised he could not start a new life until he faced his victims and apologised.

"We made a lot of victims, so (it is necessary) for us to get where we are, being able to walk without fear as a civilian," he said.

Following the event, Francis joined reconciliation with another major theme of his papacy, concern for the environment, by planting a peace tree at a cross honouring the conflict's more than eight million victims including the dead, disappeared and displaced.

Before the event, the former commander of the FARC published a public letter to Francis.

"Your frequent reminders about the infinite mercy of God move me to beg for your forgiveness for any tear or pain we have caused Colombian society or any of its individuals," said Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko.

The long-time rebel commander, who is undergoing medical treatment in Cuba following a stroke, said he regretted that he was unable to be present.

Declaring himself a "devout admirer" of the first Latin American pope, he praised Francis' insistence on the dignity of every human being and criticism of an economic system in which rich nations loot the riches of the poor.

In another sign that the Pope's message of reconciliation may be getting through to the deeply polarised nation, the mayor of Medellin said President Juan Manuel Santos would pray on Saturday at a Mass in Colombia's second-largest city with his predecessor and arch-rival, Alvaro Uribe.

Previously the two had refused to appear together at any papal events.

Francis started the day by celebrating Mass in Villavicencio, where he beatified two priests intimately identified with Colombia's conflict. The Pope declared them martyrs who "shed their blood for the love of the flock to whom they were entrusted".

AP

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