Last Colombia rebels ready to respect ceasefire: leader

Quito (AFP) –


Despite warning a ceasefire in Colombia is at "serious risk" of collapse, the leader of the country's last rebel group says it will respect the truce until its New Year expiry date.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN, began the historic truce with Colombia's armed forces on October 1, after half a century of fighting.

The initial ceasefire is to last until January 9, as peace talks between the two sides continue.

Pablo Beltran, the ELN commander, has hit out at the government of President Juan Manuel Santos for failing to "take responsibility" for recent attacks on community leaders and rights activists in coca-growing areas.

"There have been a significant number of deaths and threats against leaders, and repression of social movements," he told AFP in an interview in Quito, where he is the ELN's chief negotiator in the peace talks.

Beltran criticized the authorities for heavy-handed treatment of protests by farmers involved in coca-production. In many cases they are caught in a no-man's land between drug traffickers and the government intent on depriving them of their cash crop.

"In Colombia, there is very intense debate on the forced substitution of illegal crops," he said.

"This situation has aroused many protests and the treatment that has been meted out at these protests is like a kind of war treatment."

The attacks on community leaders have left about 200 people dead since 2016.

The government "consider that this is not a problem, as it does not violate the ceasefire," Beltran said.

"International bodies require the government to assume its responsibilities," he said, citing as an example the death, allegedly at the hands of the army, of an indigenous journalist in a land-claim protest on October 8.

Beltran also warned that the army was carrying out operations "close to ELN troops" and said this could provoke a clash. "It's looking for a confrontation," he said.

Government and ELN negotiators have undertaken several rounds of peace talks in the Ecuadorian capital Quito since February.

Santos is determined to sign a deal with the ELN to follow on from the success of a December 2016 peace pact with the South American country's other main rebel movement, the FARC.

While some FARC dissidents remain at large, the majority of the rebels have disarmed and formed a political party.

- Difficulties, and progress -

FARC and the ELN were formed in 1964 to fight for land rights and protect poor rural communities.

The conflict drew in paramilitary groups and state forces in what became a many-sided war fueled by drug trafficking.

It left about 260,000 people dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced in Latin America's longest conflict.

Beltran said the ELN is watching closely how the FARC deal holds up.

"If the commitments to FARC are not respected, what can we expect? As they are moving forward, we are watching what happens," he said.

The ELN, which has about 1,500 fighters by official count, agreed to halt attacks on oil facilities, to stop all hostage-taking, to suspend recruitment of minors and to stop planting explosives.

On its side, the government promised to improve prison conditions for 450 rebels and to strengthen protection for human-rights leaders.

Beltran said he nonetheless believed the truce would hold until the agreed deadline of January 9.

"Although there are difficulties, there is also progress," he said, predicting we "will find a solution to the flaws and the problems."

And after January 9?

"We think at at this moment the task is to solve the problems of the ceasefire and to take it forward," he said. "If we are capable of that, we will already consider ourselves well served, and then we see what happens after January 9".

He insisted that an ELN ceasefire breach last month, the killing of an indigenous leader, was an accident, after the man had struggled with his captors.

The leader had been detained by an ELN unit because "in that area there are some indigenous leaders who have been guiding Army patrols."

He said the guerrilla unit involved had "asked for forgiveness."