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Santos doubles down with ELN peace talks

Colombia''s President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a news conference at the presidential palace in Bogotá, yesterday.
Announcement of negotiations with second largest rebel group comes five days before runoff

BOGOTÁ — President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia’s No. 2 rebel group announced yesterday that they have been holding exploratory peace talks, heralding hopes that the nation’s two, long-enduring guerrilla conflicts could soon end.

The announcement came just five days ahead of a presidential runoff in Colombia in which not just Santos’ political fate but also that of his 18-month-old negotiations with Colombia’s main insurgency hang in the balance.

A statement published on the presidency’s website yesterday said exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, began in January. It says an agenda for formal talks would include “victims and the participation of society. The other topics remain to be agreed upon.”

Santos told reporters that such talks will not commence until the ELN agrees to certain conditions, which he did not enumerate. He reminded Colombians, however, that he had not agreed to open formal talks with the far larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in November 2012, until after it met conditions he demanded including disarmament upon reaching a peace pact.

The rebels, known as the FARC, had earlier agreed to halt kidnappings as a revenue source. The ELN has also abducted for ransom.

“We are not going to put at risk, of course, the advances in Havana” with Colombia’s main leftist rebel group, said Santos. He did not explain the announcement’s timing or take questions.

Santos said the FARC talks in Cuba are in “their final phase” following Saturday’s announcement that the parties had agreed on a framework for identifying and indemnifying the conflict’s tens of thousands of victims.

The preliminary talks with the ELN have been held in Havana and assisted by the top diplomats of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, and Brazil, Celso Amorin, said a senior foreign ministry official in Quito who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Some analysts have said it is important to bring the ELN into the peace process to prevent it becoming a refuge for FARC fighters unwilling to demobilize if peace is achieved.

The Cuban-inspired ELN has about 2,000 combatants, compared to some 8,000 for the FARC.

The ELN has a long history of kidnapping foreigners for ransom, of extorting businesses and of sabotaging Colombia’s main oil pipeline. It launched its insurgency in 1965, a year after the FARC. While the FARC’s founding commanders are dead, one of the ELN’s founders, Nicolás Rodríguez, is now its top leader.

Debate

Santos’ challenger in Sunday’s runoff, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, is the chosen candidate of hard-line former president Álvaro Uribe and won more votes than Santos in the May 25 first round of voting.

Throughout the campaign, he promised to suspend peace talks if he got to the presidency but rolled back recently after securing an alliance with former Conservative candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez, who came in third in the first round and was left out of the race. Yesterday, Ramírez called Santos an “opportunist” for announcing talks with the ELN just five days before the runoff.

In a heated debate on Monday night, Santos said to Zuluaga: “You want to continue this war. I want to end it.” The exchange — like previous ones — was quite aggressive, with the opposition candidate even telling the president that “with you, one can’t be respectful.”

The two contenders got especially aggressive when discussing the case of alleged hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, who has been linked to Zuluaga’s campaign.

Sepúlveda was released on Monday after the judge in charge of the case ruled there wasn’t enough evidence against him but Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre re-arrested him just a couple of hours later and said the judge would be investigated.

Zuluaga has repeatedly said that a video which showed him at Sepúlveda’s office was a “montage” but, during Monday’s debate, he admitted that it was him in the images.

“I’ve acknowledged that I went to a meeting for work reasons, like we told the country. But that video is illegal,” he lashed out.

Both men served in Uribe’s Cabinet: Zuluaga as Finance minister, Santos as Defense minister.

Uribe considers Santos’ opening of peace talks with the FARC a personal betrayal. Recently elected to the Senate, he remains immensely popular for weakening the FARC with close US military and intelligence assistance.

Santos said in Monday’s debate that the FARC talks may be Colombia’s last chance for a negotiated peace with the Western Hemisphere’s main rebel band.

Three previous efforts beginning in the 1980s had failed.

Herald with AP, Reuters, online media

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