Colombia says ELN rebels to take steps to restart peace talks

Colombia's Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda reads a statement during a news conference in Havana, Cuba, August 12, 2022. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

BOGOTA/HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia's ELN guerrilla group will take the necessary steps to restart peace talks, the new government's peace commissioner said on Friday.

Newly elected President Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, has promised to establish "total peace" in Colombia and sent a high-level delegation to Cuba this week to meet with National Liberation Army (ELN) representatives there.

"This government officially recognizes the legitimacy of the dialogue delegation of the National Liberation Army," peace commissioner Danilo Rueda told journalists, accompanied by both delegations.

"We confirm the ELN shares the will for peace of the Colombian government," Rueda said. "In the meetings which have been held, the (rebel) delegation has announced the ELN will take the necessary steps to restart the talks."

Representatives of the ELN, which was founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, have remained in Cuba since previous talks begun under the government of Juan Manuel Santos were called off in 2019.

Petro has said the visit was meant to tease out whether the ELN, which is seen as radical and not centrally-controlled, truly is willing to pursue peace.

"It has been a success. We were able to have a first session of dialogue with the ELN delegation. I feel optimistic," said Colombian Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva.

Talks between the ELN and the Santos government began in Ecuador, later moving to Cuba, but were called off by Santos' successor Ivan Duque because the ELN refused to halt hostilities and killed 22 police cadets in a Bogota bomb attack.

The ELN, which has some 2,400 combatants, is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnapping.

It is unclear how much sway the older rebel leadership in Cuba holds over units operating deep in Colombia's countryside.

Colombia's conflict, which has run for nearly six decades, killed 450,000 people between 1985 and 2018.

The visit also marked a thawing of relations between Cuba and Colombia.

Throughout his term Duque called for Cuba to extradite the ELN leadership and was repeatedly rebuffed.

"I thanked Colombia's Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva for his call yesterday to end the illegitimate inclusion of Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism on the part of the government of the United States," Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; editing by Grant McCool)

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