Violence in Colombia falls in first month of ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Otty Patino, head of the negotiation team of the Colombian Government, Danilo Rueda, Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Senate Member Ivan Cepeda, Pablo Beltran, head of leftist guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN) and Aureliano Carbonell, ELN negotiator, attend a news conference, announcing the second round of peace talks between Colombia's government and ELN for this year, in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

BOGOTA (Reuters) -Colombia's ceasefire with four armed groups has led to significant reductions in violence during its first month, Interior Minister Alfonso Prada said on Monday, with fewer murders and attacks on armed forces.

Leftist President Gustavo Petro has promised to seek either peace deals or surrender agreements with armed groups to end nearly six decades of conflict in which at least 450,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

Last New Year's Eve he decreed ceasefires with the Clan del Golfo gang, the Sierra Nevada paramilitaries and two dissident groups founded by ex-members of the FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal.

Petro also initially declared a ceasefire with National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, who are holding peace talks with his government, but backpedaled when the group said it had not agreed to the measure.

"Attacks, effects, assassinations, murders and injuries of our armed forces have been significantly reduced and the deaths of civilians have also been significantly reduced, by a very high percentage," Prada said in a video statement, accompanied by military leaders.

Though the number of military members killed in January - three - was the same as deaths in January 2022, the number of soldiers injured fell from 40 to nine, Prada said.

Homicides in provinces heavily affected by conflict and where one or more of the groups participating in the ceasefire are active fell by up to 68%, he said, without giving absolute figures.

The Pacific province of Choco saw the 68% reduction, followed closely by Arauca, on the Venezuelan border, which saw murders fall by 66%. In Cordoba homicides were down 52%, while in Magdalena they fell 37%, Prada said.

The figures "show a very high average percentage of saving of lives as a product of the bilateral ceasefires," Prada said, adding mass killings were down 50%.

Prada did not give figures for members of illegal armed groups killed this month, but the country's navy said earlier on Monday at least nine rebels from the ELN died in fighting last weekend close to Buenaventura.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Josie Kao and Kenneth Maxwell)

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