Colombia's ELN rebels ready for talks with next president

Havana (AFP) –


The chief negotiator of Colombia's ELN guerrillas said Tuesday he is ready to continue talks with the government even if the hardline rightist candidate wins next month's runoff presidential election.

Colombia's last active rebel force, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), resumed preliminary peace negotiations with the Bogota government in the Cuban capital Havana earlier this month.

President Juan Manuel Santos is trying to conclude a peace agreement with the ELN similar to the one signed with the larger FARC guerrillas in November 2016. The FARC has since become a political party.

But 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.

On Sunday, hardline conservative candidate Ivan Duque won the first round of Colombia's presidential elections and is favorite to defeat leftist Gustavo Petro in the June 17 runoff.

Duque has vowed to rewrite the FARC deal, which he believes is too lenient on the former guerrillas, and has expressed reservations about the negotiations with the ELN.

"We have received an order: we cannot leave the (negotiating) table," the ELN's chief negotiator Pablo Beltran told AFP.

"If Duque wins, he will find us here. He can put together his delegation and we can continue.

"We live in a world of 'fake news'... All this media war has an effect on people. We must continue to persevere so we can turn a page on war."

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

In Havana, both sides have expressed a willingness to reach a deal for a longer ceasefire than the one which ended in January after 101 days. That fell through amid mutual accusations of breaches, and a spate of rebel attacks on the military.

"We have made progress on pre-accords on the issue of a bilateral ceasefire," said Beltran. "We hope it will be in place for the investiture of the new government on August 7."

The ELN announced a ceasefire for the period covering the first round of the elections. The group's leadership will make a decision on whether to do the same for the second round, but Beltran said he believed it is "very probable."

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