Govt withdraws negotiator in setback for peace talks
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said new rebel attacks yesterday have prompted him to recall his chief negotiator to peace talks with the country's last remaining insurgent group in a setback for efforts to end a half-century of political violence in the South American nation.
The reported clashes came hours after the expiration of a temporary bilateral cease-fire that the United Nations, church leaders and government officials had praised as an important advance in reducing violence and moving toward an end to the nation's final rebel conflict.
Rebels with the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, and government delegates had both expressed hopes of reaching a new agreement on an extended case-fire during a fresh round of peace talks that were expected to start yesterday in Ecuador.
"Inexplicably, the ELN not only refused, but they reinitiated terrorist attacks this morning," Santos said in a short televised address. "On the exact day new talks were slated to begin."
Santos said he has asked chief negotiator Gustavo Bell to immediately return from Quito to "evaluate the future of the process" and ordered Colombia's military to respond to the new aggressions with force. The Ministry of Defense announced less than an hour later that authorities had detained two ELN rebels on weapons and terrorism charges after being found with drugs and gun cartridges.
"My commitment to peace has been and will be unwavering," Santos said. "But peace is obtained through willpower and concrete acts. Not just with words."
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 toward negotiations with the ELN, analysts say peace talks with ELN rebels also present distinct challenges.