World Bulletin/News Desk
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has begun exploratory peace talks with leftist ELN rebels, he said on Tuesday, just days before voters go to the polls in one of the tightest presidential election battles in decades.
The center-right government said it started discussing an agenda early in the year to begin official negotiations to end a half century war with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The government has been in peace talks with the ELN's larger counterpart, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), since November 2012 to end a conflict that has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions.
"We express to Colombia and the international community the reciprocal will to continue this exploratory phase which will allow us to agree on an agenda and establish talks to reach a final agreement," the government and ELN said in a joint statement posted on the president's website.
"The delegations agreed that the agenda will include points on victims and social participation."
Santos faces right-wing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a presidential ballot on Sunday, which is shaping up to be the closest race in two decades. Zuluaga has bitterly opposed the talks with the FARC and is likely to object to negotiations with the ELN.
Zuluaga has said that if elected, he would not immediately end talks with the FARC but would impose conditions like jail terms and a ban on political participation.
PROMISE OF PEACE
Talks with the ELN would be held under the same conditions as with the FARC, Santos told reporters. There will be no ceasefire and negotiations will be carried out overseas.
Santos said the decision to reveal the talks came as a deal with the FARC "entered its final stage."
"An integral peace process that includes the FARC and the ELN is the best guarantee for the victims and for the country that this conflict will end forever and never be repeated," he said. (For more on the election, see )
Colombia's leftist political parties have thrown support behind Santos in a bid to preserve the peace process. Leftist lawmaker Ivan Cepeda, who helped facilitate the ELN talks, said neither the FARC nor the ELN will continue peace talks if Zuluaga wins.
"This shows that Santos, with whom we have profound differences, is doing something to bring about peace," Cepeda told Reuters.
"Never has peace in Colombia advanced so much with the FARC and now there is this joint statement with the ELN. I hope this has some electoral result for Santos."
Some analysts have said it is important to bring the ELN into the peace process to prevent it becoming a refuge for FARC fighters unwilling to demobilize if peace is achieved.
The ELN has battled a dozen governments since it was founded in 1964 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.Last Mod: 10 Haziran 2014, 22:07