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Colombia, ELN rebels hail progress in second round of peace talks

ELN official says two sides have taken “first steps” towards a temporary ceasefire now that negotiations in Mexico City have concluded.

Colombia’s government and the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group have welcomed progress in their efforts to end decades of armed conflict in the South American country, now a second round of peace talks in Mexico -City is completed.

The negotiations are part of an effort by President Gustavo Petro – the country’s first leftist leader and former M-19 rebel – to negotiate peace or surrender agreements with armed groups and bring “total peace” to Colombia.

Founded in 1964 by Catholic priests, the ELN is the country’s largest surviving rebel organization.

“We have taken the first steps to strengthen a bilateral, national and temporary ceasefire that will create better conditions for the mobilization and participation of Colombians in the peace process,” said ELN’s Pablo Beltran on Friday.

Otty Patino, the head of the Colombian government delegation, said bringing about a ceasefire would be a major challenge for the next cycle of talks to take place in Cuba, as well as developing a “pilot plan” for peace and the expanding participation in the negotiations.

The first round of peace talks in the Venezuelan capital Caracas at the end of last year led to diverging stories. The government of Colombia announced that a ceasefire had been reached, while the ELN denied accepting such an agreement, saying a ceasefire was “just a proposal to be considered”.

Previous negotiations with the ELN have failed amid the group’s diffuse command structure and dissension within its ranks.

In 2019, conservative former president Ivan Duque called off peace talks with the ELN following a car bomb attack at a police academy in Bogota that killed 22 people.

ELN leaders have said fighters are on board with current talks.

On Friday, Norway and Mexico, who have served as facilitators of the negotiations, applauded their progress.

“Congratulations to the (Colombian) government and the #ELN guerrilla on substantial progress in the peace talks in Mexico, on important topics such as participation, humanitarian aid and future ceasefire,” the Norwegian Foreign Ministry tweeted.

The ELN has about 2,500 remaining fighters and is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnappings.

Petro, who won the election in June, has also said he intends to fully implement an earlier agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from 2016.

More than 450,000 people have been killed in nearly 60 years of armed conflict in the country.