Colombian guerrilla leader rejects peace talks

By William Parra

HAVANA, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Colombia's second largest Marxist guerrilla movement sees an electoral ploy behind the olive branch offered by President Alvaro Uribe and will not enter peace talks, one of its leaders said.

"Conditions do not exist for real peace," Ramiro Vargas, one of the top five commanders of the National Liberation Army (ELN), told Reuters Television in a recent interview in Cuba.

"Uribe's peace proposal to the guerrillas is a political maneuver to clean up his image and gain ground for next year's elections," Vargas said. "That's why we won't join in."

Seeking to pacify the violence-ridden South American nation, the Colombian government is demobilizing right-wing paramilitary groups formed by landowners and drug traffickers in the 1980s to counter a leftist insurgency that began four decades ago.

But the guerrillas of the ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have refused to join peace talks with Uribe, a staunch ally of Washington.

In one of the deadliest attacks this year, FARC rebels killed 14 policemen on Monday in an ambush in the mountains of the Caribbean province of Cesar, where leftist rebels and right-wing groups are fighting for control of the land.

Both the paramilitaries and the FARC have grown rich on Colombia's huge cocaine trade. Together with the ELN, all are known to kill peasants they suspect of cooperating with the other side.

More than 6,000 paramilitaries have demobilized since 2003, but few have been detained for the thousands of atrocities committed by their groups, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Monday.

The U.S-based rights group said paramilitary networks are being left intact even as militiamen lay down their arms and hand them over to the government.

Vargas said the demobilization of the ELN's right-wing foes was a political stunt that would benefit the government in the 2006 election.

The 5,000-strong ELN was founded by university students, oil workers and Catholic priests in 1964 as a pro-Cuban guerrilla force modeled on Fidel Castro's revolutionary movement. It has been fighting the central government ever since.

Vargas said a cease-fire was not out of the question, but would have to come after peace talks that must include a national agreement on social and human rights problems in Colombia.

The ELN welcomed mediation by former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who was proposed by the Colombian government and has sought to bring the rebels to the negotiating table, Vargas said.

The 65-year-old guerrilla leader has lived in Cuba since 2002 when he arrived to evaluate an earlier government peace offer that did not get off the ground.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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