World

Colombia peace talks with ELN guerrillas hit snag after grenade attack

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said new rebel attacks Wednesday 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.

Colombia peace delegation reports violent incidents on Wednesday, but there are no known fatalities

A rebel of Colombia's Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) shows his armband while posing for a photograph in the northwestern jungles of Colombia on Aug. 31. (Federico Rios/Reuters)

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said new rebel attacks Wednesday 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 slated to start Wednesday 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 Defence 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."

Looking to mirror FARC process

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.

FARC, now known as now known as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, will be allowed into the political process in Colombia, where a presidential election takes place in July.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, shake hands after signing a peace accord in Bogota in November 2016. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

In a statement, Colombia's peace delegation said there were four new attacks early 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 300 kilometres northeast 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 in a statement. "They are a direct affront to the community."

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

Church leaders and the United Nations had urged both sides to extend the ceasefire, saying the temporary reprieve had reduced violence in a majority of the largely poor, rural areas affected by the conflict, "tangible benefits that give the peace process more legitimacy."

Under the temporary agreement, the 1,500-member ELN pledged to renounce hostage-taking, recruitment of minors and attacks on infrastructure. The government in turn vowed to improve conditions for jailed rebels as well as boost protections for leftist activists in areas dominated by the ELN.

ELN guerillas were accused of violating the accord in two separate incidents that left a total of 14 people dead, including an indigenous leader. The rebels also accused the government of failing to live up to their end of the accord during the 101-day cease-fire.

Jean Arnault, the UN representative for the Colombian peace process, said the ELN had expressed "strong reservations" about the cease-fire's implementation.

"While the ELN leadership has proposed the negotiation of a stronger cease-fire, they have remained silent on their posture after the end of the temporary cease-fire yesterday," he said, adding that it was "too early to venture a sense of what the future holds."

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