BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia’s new president said Saturday he was suspending arrest warrants and extradition requests for members of the left-wing guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) in an effort to restart peace talks to end nearly 60 years of war.
The announcement is part of a principal campaign promise by newly elected Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 insurgency, who took office on Aug. 7 on pledges to bring “total peace” to the Andean country.
“I have authorized the reinstatement of the protocols, allowing negotiators to again reconnect with their organization, suspending arrest warrants for those negotiators, suspending extradition orders for those negotiators in order to start a dialogue with the National Liberation Army,” Petro said.
“This resolution initiates a new possibility of a peace process in Colombia,” Petro said after attending a security council meeting in the province of Bolivar.
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.
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The group said soon after Petro’s election that it was willing to consider negotiations.
Petro has said a visit to Cuba this month by Colombian and international officials was meant to tease out whether the ELN, which is seen as radical and not centrally-controlled, truly is willing to pursue a peace process.
Colombia’s high peace commissioner Danilo Rueda traveled to Cuba with Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva, Senator Ivan Cepeda, and U.N. official Carlos Ruiz Massieu, as well as a representative of the Norwegian government.
Rueda has the authority to explore the possibility of talks as well examine whether ceasefires and other measures could be established, Petro has said.
Discussions could begin where the Santos’ administration left off, the Colombian president said, adding he would recognize the protocols agreed with help from guarantors Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Brazil.
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.
Previous attempts at negotiations with the ELN, which has some 2,400 combatants and is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnapping, have not advanced partly because of dissent within its ranks.
Much of the ELN leadership in Cuba is older than many of its members and it is unclear how much sway they hold over units operating deep in Colombia’s countryside.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Anthony Esposito and Daniel Wallis)
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