BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia called off a ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels on Wednesday, in an about-face after the left-wing guerrilla group said it had not agreed to halt fighting.
The reversal less than four days after the initial announcement is a setback for plans by President Gustavo Petro to bring peace to the Andean country after nearly sixty years of conflict which has killed more than 450,000 people.
Petro, himself a former rebel, announced the six-month ceasefire late on New Year's Eve, also including crime gangs such as the Clan del Golfo and dissident groups run by former members of the now-demobilized FARC rebels.
But on Tuesday the ELN said the ceasefire was a proposal to be discussed at ongoing peace negotiations with the government and was not in force.
The ELN has raised the importance of a bilateral ceasefire on multiple occasions, Interior Minister Alfonso Prada told journalists at a news conference, and the rebels asked the government to respond to their unilateral Christmas ceasefire with a bilateral effort.
"Under this understanding the Colombian government declared the bilateral ceasefire," Prada said. "But in the face of the position assumed publicly yesterday, under which the protocol of said ceasefire should be taken to the negotiating table, we have decided to suspend."
The government called on the ELN to declare a verifiable truce while the issue is discussed at negotiations, the next round of which are set to take place in Mexico, Prada said.
"Only when we have the conditions of the protocols totally agreed can we lift the suspension," he said, adding in the meantime the military and police can continue their offensive against the rebels.
Prada said ceasefires remained in force with the other four groups - FARC dissidents known as the Estado Mayor Central and Segunda Marquetalia; the Clan del Golfo; and the Self-Defenses of the Sierra Nevada.
Petro's government has said it will talk to armed groups of all stripes to seek peace agreements or surrender deals.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)