Colombia and ELN rebels begin to move to resume peace talks

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HAVANA – Colombia’s new government and members of the country’s last guerrilla group took steps Friday toward resuming peace talks that were suspended three years ago in Cuba.

After a meeting between representatives of both sides in Havana, Colombia’s national peace commissioner, Danilo Rueda, said the government would take the necessary “legal and political steps” to enable peace talks with the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN.

He said that included the lifting of arrest warrants for ELN negotiators currently living in exile in Cuba.

The administration of newly installed President Gustavo Petro will engage with the ELN delegation and considers them to be legitimate representatives of the rebel group, Rueda said.

“We believe that the ELN has the same desire for peace as the Colombian government,” Rueda said in his statement. “And hope they listen to the many voices in different territories who seek a peaceful solution to this armed conflict.”

Peace talks between Colombia’s former government and the ELN ended in 2019 after the rebels set off a car bomb at a police academy in Bogota, killing more than 20 cadets.

After this incident, Colombian authorities issued arrest warrants for ELN leaders in Cuba for the peace talks. But Cuba refused to extradite them, claiming it would compromise its status as a neutral nation in the conflict and break diplomatic protocols.

The United States responded by placing Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Petro has said he wants to start peace talks with the nation’s remaining armed groups in a bid to reduce rural violence and bring lasting peace to the nation of 50 million people.

A 2016 peace deal between the government and the nation’s largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, helped reduce kidnappings, killings and forced displacements.

But violence has increased in some parts of the country as FARC gangs, drug-trafficking groups and the ELN battle over cocaine-smuggling routes, illegal mines and other resources abandoned by the FARC.

In July, criminal groups staged nearly 90 attacks on police and the military, killing 13 police officers, according to CERAC, a think tank that monitors violence in Colombia. That made it one of the most dangerous months for Colombia’s armed forces in the past two decades.

The ELN, which was founded in the 1960s, has long been designated by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. The group has an estimated 2,500 fighters in Colombia and also operates drug-trafficking routes, extortion rackets and illegal mines in neighboring Venezuela.

Rueda reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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