Calls for a ceasefire at the start of the latest peace talks between Colombia and ELN

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By Webdesk

The government of Colombia and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group have begun their latest round of peace talks, with both sides hoping to reach a ceasefire.

Tuesday’s talks in Cuba’s Havana mark the start of the third round of negotiations and the most recent effort to end decades of violence in Colombia.

On Tuesday from Madrid, Spain, Colombian President Gustavo Petro — a leftist politician who took office saying he would seek “total peace” in the country — outlined a proposal for a gradual ceasefire.

“You can start with regional ceasefires and as time passes and confidence is built, we can continue to expand it across the entire national territory,” he said.

A day earlier, the head of the ELN delegation, Pablo Beltran, said that a successful ceasefire is necessary to gain the trust of the Colombian public.

“We want the Colombian people to see that a ceasefire is possible, and that we have agreed to abide by it,” Beltran said. “This [would be] a tentative ceasefire, no end to the conflict, so we’re interested in it working 100 percent. That means zero errors.”

The statement came after an ELN attack killed nine Colombian soldiers in late March and threatened to derail negotiations, just weeks after a second round in Mexico City concluded. At the end of last year, a first round of talks took place in Caracas, Venezuela.

While both sides welcomed progress at the end of those talks, the Colombian government has said the ELN attack in March damaged confidence in the group’s commitment to peace.

Beltran said Monday the attack was defensive, triggered by an “offensive campaign” by the Colombian army. He added that ELN fighters have also been killed since the last round of talks.

“For now, there is no ceasefire. And operations on both sides continue,” Beltran said.

Nevertheless, he said it is “possible to move forward” with a dialogue led by Petro, the country’s first leftist leader and himself a former M-19 rebel.

“We feel like partners with the government,” Beltran said.

In a tweet, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Havana looks forward to hosting the talks, which are being led by Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Norway and Brazil.

“We firmly believe that the Colombian people deserve peace and that they can achieve it,” he said.

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

It is believed to have about 2,500 remaining combatants and is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnappings.

Negotiations with the group had failed under previous governments, usually due to disagreements within the group’s ranks. Leaders have said all its fighters are on board in the most recent talks.

In 2019, conservative former president Ivan Duque called off peace talks after an ELN car bomb killed 22 people at a police academy in Bogota.

Petro, who won elections in June, has said he intends to fully implement the peace deal signed in 2016 with the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group, once the country’s largest armed group.

At the beginning of the year, Petro’s government had to withdraw claims that a temporary ceasefire had been reached with the ELN and other groups. The ELN denied that such an agreement had been reached.

In nearly 60 years of armed conflict in Colombia, more than 450,000 people have been killed.

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