Colombia government and ELN rebels pursue peace talks in Cuba

Havana (AFP) –


Colombia's government said it hopes to reach agreement on a new ceasefire with National Liberation Army guerrillas before the May 27 presidential election as long-running peace talks resumed Thursday in Havana.

Gustavo Bell, head of the government delegation, told reporters the latest round of talks would focus on building "a more robust ceasefire" than a previous 101-day truce that ended in January after Bogota accused the rebels of a spate of deadly attacks.

A new ceasefire would allow "the elections to be held in absolute peace" and bring an end to "kidnappings, extortions, recruitment of children and attacks on infrastructure," Bell said.

President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his team to resume talks in March in response to a unilateral ceasefire by the ELN for that month's legislative elections.

Santos is trying to conclude a peace agreement with the country's last active rebel group, similar to the one signed with the larger FARC guerrillas in November 2016. The FARC has since become a political party.

Santos steps down in August and has admitted that any peace deal with the 1,500-strong ELN will likely come too late for him to sign.

The opinion polls' favorite to succeed him in this month's vote, right-wing senator Ivan Duque, is opposed to negotiations with the rebels.

Bell told reporters in Havana he hopes that it will be possible "to reach a specific moment in which it is Colombian society itself that asks and gives continuity to these talks, regardless of the government that is elected in the next elections."

ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltran was keen to play up the rebels' willingness to pursue a peace deal. "We are aware that the only viable way for Colombia, for a political solution, is to move forward on this path of dialogue."

Cuba stepped in to host the talks after Ecuador -- which hosted several rounds of talks over a 15-month period since February 2017 -- pulled out last month in protest over an upsurge of violence on its border with Colombia.