ELN Marxist Rebels to Start Formal Peace Talks With Colombia

  • Start of talks had been put on hold until group freed hostages
  • Cuba-inspired group attacks oil pipelines, kidnaps for ransom

Colombia’s government and the nation’s second-largest Marxist guerrilla force said they will start official peace negotiations aimed at ending five decades of violence.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN, and government negotiators said in a joint declaration in Caracas on Monday that they will start the talks in Quito on Oct. 27. The ELN pledged to free two hostages still in its power before that date. The talks had been set to start earlier this year, but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the government wouldn’t sit down with the group until it freed its hostages.

“For nearly three years we’ve been looking for negotiations with the ELN to end our conflict with them,” Santos said in a national address. “For this to happen, it was fundamental that the process of liberations had started, so that there will won’t ever again be kidnap victims of the ELN in Colombia.”

The peace process with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is in crisis after voters rejected a deal to end the conflict in an Oct. 2 plebiscite. Opposition leaders, including former President Alvaro Uribe, criticized the agreement as too lenient on the rebels. Since then, the government has held talks with both the FARC and the opposition, in a bid to break the deadlock and come up with a new accord that has wider appeal.

Hostage Release

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that the ELN freed a hostage in Arauca province in eastern Colombia, the third kidnap victim the group has handed over to them since Sept. 29.

The ELN was founded in the 1960s, inspired by the revolution in Cuba. It was also influenced by so-called liberation theology, and some of its senior members have been Catholic priests, including a Spaniard called Manuel Perez who led the group. InSight Crime, a Washington D.C.-based research group that monitors crime in Latin America, estimates that the group currently has about 2,500 fighters.

The group is known for its bomb attacks on oil pipelines, and tries to extort money from multinational and local companies to raise money for its insurgency. Last year, Santos blamed the ELN for bomb attacks on two pension fund offices in Bogota. In 2003, the group kidnapped a group eight tourists from Israel and Europe in the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern Colombia. The tourists were later released unharmed.

The talks are being facilitated with the help of the governments of Norway, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 7 for his efforts to try to bring the nation’s civil conflict to an end.

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