Colombia's Santos orders resumption of talks with ELN rebels

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Bogota (AFP)

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the resumption of peace talks with ELN rebels Monday, aiming to conclude an historic deal before leaving office in August, despite election gains for hardliners who reject his policies.

Santos redoubled his commitment to the talks despite his ruling coalition losing ground in Sunday's legislative elections to a right-wing conservative bloc which rejects what it sees as appeasement.

"I have instructed the head of the negotiating team, Gustavo Bell, to travel to Quito and reactivate the dialogue," the president said.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN -- the South American country's last active rebel group -- welcomed the decision in a statement.

Santos's announcement came in response to a unilateral ceasefire by the ELN for Sunday's legislative elections, seen as a test of the group's willingness to get back to negotiations.

He said the parties would discuss a new, "broad and verifiable" ceasefire agreement that would prevent a resurgence of violence of the kind that forced the suspension of talks in January.

"We will advance with prudence, firmness and perseverance until we agree on the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of the ELN, that is, complete peace."

Several rounds of talks had been held over the course of the previous year in the capital of neighboring Ecuador, but Santos suspended them following a series of attacks on police stations that left six people dead and dozens more wounded.

Those attacks occurred after a 101-day bilateral ceasefire had expired on January 9, during a break in the talks.

- 'Complete peace' -

Santos has made no secret of his dream of "complete peace" in Colombia, having signed a peace deal in November 2016 with its biggest rebel group, the FARC.

Its transition to a political party that contested Sunday's legislative elections is something of a triumph for the 66-year-old president, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

But the major winners of the election, a coalition of right-wing forces centered around former president Alvaro Uribe's Centro Democratico party, have led opposition to the peace deal, and what they see as indulgent treatment of organizations involved in atrocious crimes.

But "it is the only option that Santos has -- try to calm the conflict with the ELN, reduce confrontation with the army to a minimum," analyst Camilo Echandia of Externado University told AFP.

"He does not want to go down in history as the president who made peace with the FARC, but who walked away from talks with the ELN."

Santos is due to step down on August 7 after two terms. The FARC peace deal and ELN negotiations will top the agenda as the presidential election campaign gets underway.

Both left and right-wing coalitions chose their candidates in primaries over the weekend.

A hardliner from Uribe's party, Ivan Duque, won the right-wing party as is leading the opinion polls ahead of the May 27 first round.

- Battlefield losses -

During the suspension of talks, government forces had resumed operations against the ELN, killing 10 rebels on Tuesday in the group's biggest recent battlefield loss.

The ELN has about 1,500 fighters.

Even after a year of negotiations, the Quito talks have shown little sign of progress.

Analysts say this is largely due to a government negotiating with a group lacking a vertical command structure and whose various units in the field have military autonomy.

Events since the FARC ceasefire has given ammunition to Santos' critics, not least the general consensus that the ELN has taken over territory abandoned by the FARC and strengthened their hand.

"It is very unlikely that the next government will agree to negotiate such an imprecise, general agenda, with so few possibilities of obtaining results," said Echandia.