Colombia\’s government launched peace negotiations Wednesday with the country\’s second-biggest guerrilla group, the left-wing ELN, broadening the push to end the country\’s bloody half-century conflict, officials said.
There is no start date yet for the Ecuador-based negotiations, which were announced by the leaders of the peace delegations in Caracas, Venezuela.
The two sides "have agreed to set up public talks… in order to sign a final accord to end the armed conflict and agree on changes in search of peace and equity," they said in a joint statement.
Colombian government negotiator Frank Pearl and ELN commander Antonio Garcia read out the statement in a joint appearance after talks in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.
Bogota hopes to bring the National Liberation Army (ELN) into the peace process by opening talks with it in addition to those already under way with Colombia\’s biggest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The ELN is a leftist group like the FARC but has fought it for territory in a many-sided conflict that started as a peasant uprising in 1964.
While the FARC has observed a ceasefire since last year as its own peace talks have advanced, the ELN has continued attacks.
The war between right- and left-wing guerrillas, government troops and gangs in Colombia is considered the last major armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.
Accords between the government and the FARC and ELN would establish peace with the main remaining players in the conflict.
"A peace process with the ELN means that Colombia now has the opportunity to end completely the 52 years of armed conflict with both guerrilla groups," said Kyle Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
"The post-conflict phase would not be complete in all regions of the country without a successful peace process with the ELN."
Venezuela\’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, hosting the talks, said earlier it was "a historic step forward that will cause happiness for Colombia, Venezuela, the region and the international community."
South American regional bloc UNASUR said in a statement the new negotiations were the "missing piece" of the peace drive.
Official sources in Colombia said the government and ELN had agreed to let six other countries act as guarantors of the peace process: Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway and Venezuela.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been discussing for more than two years the possibility of launching formal negotiations with the ELN.
Bogota has meanwhile been holding talks in Havana with the FARC since 2012.
They had aimed to sign a peace agreement on March 23 but that deadline passed with no deal as key issues have not yet been resolved, including disarmament.
The grinding territorial standoff has killed more than 260,000 people, uprooted 6.6 million people and left a further 45,000 missing.
Inspired by the Cuban revolution, the ELN was founded in 1964, the same year the FARC launched its uprising. Officials estimate the ELN currently has some 1,500 members and the FARC about 7,000.
Though the prospect of peace with the FARC has raised hopes in Colombia, efforts to bring the ELN into the process are complicated.
"The ELN is less pragmatic than the FARC," said one Colombian government source who asked not to be named.
The source said the ELN\’s lack of a top-down command structure "has made negotiations for a roadmap more complex" in the drive for peace, the source said.
As the talks with the FARC have advanced, tensions with the ELN have remained high.
The ELN has recently released certain hostages, including a Colombian soldier it held for more than six months.
But on Tuesday, Colombian state prosecutors called for ELN leaders to be indicted on war crimes charges for attacks against oil installations that they say cost the country billions of dollars.
SOURCE: AFP and agencies