Colombia rebel group wary of gov't peace overture

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 25 (Reuters) - Colombia is trying to woo the country's second biggest Marxist rebel group into peace talks, but the guerrillas said it would be "difficult" to discuss a cease-fire with conservative President Alvaro Uribe.

Colombia last month asked the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, to meet in a foreign country to negotiate an agreement to stop the kidnapping and bombing of oil pipelines that the group carries out as part of its campaign for socialist revolution, the government said on Monday.

The 5,000-strong ELN issued a statement reacting cautiously to the overture from Uribe, a Washington ally whom the group accuses of coddling far-right paramilitaries that since the 1980s have helped the army fight the rebels and are guilty of some of the worst atrocities of the 41-year war.

"Peace is not a matter of demobilization, nor of disarming the insurgency," said the ELN statement, which also accuses Uribe of ignoring the 60-percent Colombian poverty rate that fuels the conflict.

Analysts say Uribe, who is already negotiating with the paramilitaries, is keen to show he wants peace with the guerrillas as well. He is asking other countries, many of which are wary of Colombia's human rights record, to help fund his peace program, which includes job training for former illegal combatants and reparations for their victims.

In exchange for reduced prison sentences, the paramilitaries have agreed to lay down their arms.

Uribe was a fierce critic of the former government's peace negotiations with Colombia's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The FARC never agreed to cease hostilities and the talks failed in early 2002 just before Uribe took office.

His most recent attempt at talks with the ELN, formed in the 1960s by radicals including Catholic priests, failed even though Mexico agreed to act as intermediary.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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