Thursday 5 December 2019

Colombia withdraws peace negotiator from talks with rebels after attacks

Pablo Beltran of the National Liberation Army reads a statement at the end of peace talks with the Colombian government, in Quito (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Pablo Beltran of the National Liberation Army reads a statement at the end of peace talks with the Colombian government, in Quito (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Rodrigo Londono, Farc's top commander, last June, as peace talks with another rebel group hit problems (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos has said new rebel attacks have prompted him to recall his chief negotiator from peace talks with the country's last remaining insurgent group.

The reported clashes came hours after a bilateral ceasefire expired, in a setback for efforts to end half a century of political violence in the South American nation.

In a short address on state television on Wednesday, Mr Santos condemned the attacks and said he has asked Gustavo Bell to return from talks in Ecuador "to evaluate the future of the process" and ordered Colombia's military to respond to the new aggression with force.

The defence ministry announced less than an hour later that authorities had detained two ELN rebels on weapons and terrorism charges after they were found with drugs and gun cartridges.

Representatives from Colombia's government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were due to meet on Wednesday in Ecuador and were expected to discuss the terms of a new ceasefire.

Mr Santos said: "Inexplicably, the ELN not only refused, but they reinitiated terrorist attacks this morning, on the exact day new talks were slated to begin."

He added: "My commitment to peace has been and will be unwavering. But peace is obtained through willpower and concrete acts. Not just with words."

Colombia's peace delegation said there were four new attacks early on Wednesday, including a grenade launched at marines.

The nation's largest petroleum company said there was a "possible attack" on an oil pipeline in Aguazul, about 185 miles north-east of capital Bogota. Workers detected a drop in pressure and immediately suspended operations.

"These acts are not just an attack against an oil pipeline," the government peace delegation said. "They are a direct affront to the community."

A spokeswoman for the delegation said Mr Bell's recall did not mean peace talks have been suspended, instead characterising them as a "call for consultation".

Colombia reached an historic peace agreement with the nation's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, in late 2016, ending Latin America's longest-running conflict.

The end of that conflict has been hailed internationally though it has also opened a new power struggle in remote areas previously controlled by Farc rebels and still occupied by ELN combatants.

Peace talks with the smaller ELN, whose founders in the 1960s included radical Roman Catholic priests, began last February.

While the Farc peace agreement is credited with paving the way towards negotiations with the ELN, analysts say peace talks with ELN rebels also present distinct challenges


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