April 5, 2007 / 2:24 PM / 12 years ago

Colombia's ELN rebels deny gov't cocaine charges

BOGOTA, April 4 (Reuters) - Colombia’s second-biggest rebel army on Wednesday denied government charges it has become a drug trafficking organization and said the accusations jeopardize preliminary peace talks set to resume this month.

Peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who has represented Colombia in more than a year of negotiations with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, told Reuters on Tuesday that cocaine smuggling has supplanted kidnapping as the left-wing group’s main source of income.

"The commissioner has committed an offense against the peace process, putting the process at risk," ELN second-in-command Antonio Garcia told local radio.

"We do not cultivate illicit crops, operate cocaine production laboratories or traffic in drugs. This is ELN policy. What the commissioner said is not true," Garcia said.

The ELN was started in 1964 by radical students and Catholic priests inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. It has long been seen as Colombia’s most ideologically driven rebel force, in part thanks to its traditional reluctance to get involved in Colombia’s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

Colombia will open a new six-week round of talks with the 5,000-member guerrilla army in Cuba on April 12 aimed at clinching an initial cease-fire deal that would set the stage for the group’s disbandment.

The ELN is known in this Andean country for bombing energy installations, kidnapping for ransom and planting land mines that are often stepped on and detonated by poor farmers and their families. Thousands are killed in the guerrilla war every year.

Colombia’s biggest rebel force, the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has rejected President Alvaro Uribe’s conditions for starting peace talks.

FARC leaders are wanted in the United States for drug smuggling.

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