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ELN say will keep fighting in Colombia's out-of-sight war

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Choco (Colombia) (AFP)

As night blankets a makeshift camp in the Colombian jungle, amid the rain tarps comes the dull gleam of automatic rifles, kept close at hand. Latin America's last active rebels travel light and often. It's how they survive.

Fighting a low-level war in the jungle, the National Liberation Army guerrillas remain a thorn in the side of Colombia's conservative government, hampering Bogota's campaign against rampant drug trafficking and preventing a wider peace.

"We've heard presidents and paramilitaries predict our defeat as a guerrilla force over the last 55 years and we are still active," says the commander of the rebel's "Western Front," who goes by the name Uriel.

In a daytime training exercise, camouflaged rebels barely distinguishable from their surroundings show off their readiness to repel attacks to an AFP reporting team.

Those attacks seem inevitable, given President Ivan Duque's hard line against the ELN, sending his army to root it out from its jungle strongholds.

"The Colombian conflict is going to last. There will be a war for a while here," Uriel told AFP.

"There is no political will on behalf of the Colombian state to put an end to this conflict without resorting to weapons."

Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion -- or, as the ELN puts it, a "revolutionary tax" levied on the drug trade, which thrives on the thousands of hectares under plantation in this western Choco region.

Duque has demanded they release all hostages as a prerequisite to re-starting the peace process.

The taxes "are tributes of war and as everywhere else, when tributes are not paid, there is a deprivation of liberty to compel payment," said the commander, his face masked for the cameras.

Colombia has enjoyed relative calm since a 2016 peace accord signed by then-president Juan Manuel Santos with Colombia's much larger FARC rebel movement.

Duque, who took office last August, stalled talks in Havana with the ELN rebels and broke them off altogether -- calling for the arrest of their negotiators -- following the January bombing of a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 people.

"The ball is in the government camp. If the talks won't resume, that's their decision," the commander said.

- Swelling ranks -

But why continue fighting a war they cannot win?

"Because otherwise, there would be no hope. Persisting means the possibliity of seeing a change, like the struggle some people are fighting against genetically modified crops. They create seed banks," said Uriel.

"We have a seed of revolution, a seed of social transformation. Our task is to cultivate it, to preserve it, to reproduce it."

Colombia has been accused of failing to fulfill its promises under the FARC deal, which includes a commitment to agrarian development and rehabilitating ex-combatants.

The lack of progress has caused many to return to arms, rejoining FARC dissidents and boosting ELN ranks.

Colombia's military intelligence says the group has 2,300 members, up from 1,800 in 2017 -- tiny compared to more than 250,000 in Colombia's military.

High unemployment in Quibdo, Choco's capital, fuels recruitment.

"Many guys get involved. It's their only opportunity," said a female rebel, Yesenia, 39, one of the 15-strong unit at this camp.

"Young people arrive every day seeking refuge in the ranks of the guerrillas," claims Uriel. "We will continue to incorporate them, but not indiscriminately -- we are not in a mad rush to grow."

Around him is a motley crew of hardened revolutionaries bearing the scars of conflict, and some new raw recruits, all Afro-Colombians and indigenous people from the Pacific coast.

One combatant, Jeiner, said he lost his arm two years ago as a bomb from an air raid blew him from his tent. Another lost an eye, yet another some fingers.

"There were six bombs, the last one got me. When I came round, the arm," he said, "It wasn't there anymore."

- On the move -

After the firing practice, the weapons -- Galils, M-16s, AK-47s and R-15s -- are dismantled and oiled, the parts laid down on a tarpaulin to keep them off the muddy forest floor.

These fighters travel on foot through the dense jungle or by skiff on a network of rivers, and only in small groups because of the threat of air strikes.

They move in groups of five, staying no more than four nights in one place: "Preventive measures," says Uriel.

Then the rebels set up camp again and stock up in surrounding villages. Locals have long grown accustomed to seeing soldiers in Choco.

Those who don't get used to it leave: the ELN, narco gangs and FARC dissidents clash frequently over territorial control. All have to be on guard against an increasingly determined military.

From 2017 to 2018, some 21,000 people were displaced in Choco, government figures show.

Uriel said FARC dissidents are preparing an advance into ELN territory soon and a clash is inevitable.

It won't even be a footnote in Colombia's long history of bloodshed, but Yesenia says she will be ready: "The one who moves fast wins, and we know how to move."

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