Colombia to start peace talks with ELN rebels on Oct. 27

BOGOTA/CARACAS (Reuters) - Colombia’s government and second-biggest rebel group announced on Monday they will start formal peace talks on Oct. 27 in a boost for President Juan Manuel Santos after the rejection of his deal with the larger FARC guerrilla group.

A graffiti, of rebel group Army Liberation National (ELN) is seen at the entrance of the cemetery of El Palo, Cauca, Colombia, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

The negotiations with the 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN) will begin in Ecuador, according to an agreement signed in Caracas by both sides under the auspices of Venezuela’s government.

“We are a special nation that grows despite adversities,” Santos said in a speech after the announcement. “Peace won’t slip through our fingers. On the contrary, it will be stronger, and now that we will advance with the ELN, it will be complete.”

Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize last week for his efforts to end a 52-year-old war with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: a surprising choice given voters narrowly rejected a deal he signed with them last month.

At war for five decades after being founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba’s revolution, the ELN has been in on-and-off closed-door talks with the government since January 2014 on how the two sides would conduct peace negotiations and what would be on the table.

It has remained active during that time, kidnapping and bombing oil installations, though in recent months it has released some captives. Monday’s agreement said proceedings would begin to release two remaining hostages by Oct. 27.

The ELN has sought peace before, holding talks in Cuba and Venezuela between 2002 and 2007.

While Santos’ peace accord with the FARC was internationally lauded, it was narrowly rebuffed in a plebiscite as too lenient on the rebels, who formed in 1964 as a peasant rebellion.

Former President Alvaro Uribe is now leading the effort to change the agreement that would have given the FARC guaranteed congressional seats and immunity from traditional jail sentences. His side won by half a percentage point.

Peace with the two groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in a country also ravaged by unrest from drug trafficking and other crime. But it would allow economic development in once off-limits areas and shift more military resources to fighting growing criminal gangs.

Santos, whose two-term rule ends in August 2018, has staked his reputation on inking peace deals with both rebel groups.

He is donating his Nobel prize, worth 8 million Swedish crowns ($930,000), to Colombia’s conflict victims.

Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman