Joshua Goodman ?and Andrea Rodriguez

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA: Colombia’s government and the country’s largest rebel movement signed a historic peace accord Monday evening ending a half-century of combat that caused more than 220,000 deaths and made 8 million homeless.

Underlining the importance of the deal, President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, signed the 297-page agreement before a crowd of 2,500 foreign dignitaries and special guests, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Many in the audience had tears in their eyes, and shouts rose urging Santos and Londono to “Hug, hug, hug!” But in the end, the two men just clasped hands and the rebel commander, also known as Timochenko, put on a pin shaped like a white dove that Santos has been wearing on his lapel for years. Seconds later five jets buzzed overhead in formation trailing smoke in the colors of Colombia’s flag.

During a minute of silence for the war’s victims, 50 white flags were raised. Everyone at the event wore white as a symbol of peace.

Santos proclaimed after the signing that the accord will help Colombia to stop the killing, to end the deaths of young people, the innocent, soldiers and rebels alike. He led the crowd in chants of “No more war! No more war! No more war!” and he urged Colombians to vote to accept the accord in the Oct. 2 national referendum that will determine if it takes effect.

Londono called Santos “a courageous partner” in reaching the peace deal through four hard years of negotiations, calling the accord “a victory for Colombian society and the international community.”

He also praised FARC’s fighters as heroes of the downtrodden in the struggle for social justice, but repeated the movement’s request for forgiveness for the war. “I apologize ... for all the pain that we have caused,” he said.

The signing was greeted by wild cheers by about 1,000 FARC rebels in Sabanas del Yari, where the group recently concluded its last congress by endorsing the peace deal. “Yes, we can; yes, we can; yes, we can,” they shouted, followed by calls for Timochenko to be president.

“Let no one doubt that we are going into politics without weapons,” Londono said in his speech after the signing. “We are going to comply [with the accord] and we hope that the government complies,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Santos and foreign dignitaries attended a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, at a baroque church named for St. Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit priest revered as the “slave of slaves” for his role aiding tens of thousands of African slaves brought to the New World as chattel.

In a stirring homily, Pope Francis’ envoy praised Colombians for overcoming the pain of the bloody conflict to find common ground with the rebels.

“All of us here today are conscious of the fact we’re at the end of a negotiation, but also the beginning of a still open process of change that requires the contribution and respect of all Colombians,” the cardinal said.

Across the country Colombians marked the occasion with a host of activities, from peace concerts by top-name artists to a street party in the capital, Bogota, where the signing ceremony was broadcast live on a giant screen. It was also celebrated by hundreds of guerrillas gathered in a remote region of southern Colombia.