Colombia's ELN rebels resume attacks as ceasefire expires

BOGOTA/QUITO (Reuters) - Colombia’s Marxist ELN rebels resumed attacks on oil installations and the armed forces on Wednesday, threatening the future of peace talks just hours after the expiration of a ceasefire agreement with the government.

Pablo Beltran, representative of the delegation of the National Liberation Army (ELN), addresses the media in Quito, Ecuador January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

The talks in Quito, Ecuador, had been scheduled to restart this week after a recess between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the government of center-right President Juan Manuel Santos.

Santos ordered his chief negotiator back to Bogota after the attacks, however, to weigh the future of a process that began early last year in a bid to end more than 53 years of fighting.

The rebels carried out three bomb attacks in the early hours against the Cano Limon oil pipeline, which takes crude from the Cano Limon oilfield, operated by Occidental Petroleum Corp, to the Caribbean port of Covenas.

The bombings against the pipeline, which is Colombia’s second-most important, forced the suspension of pumping operations, the government said.

The ELN also staged a grenade attack on a naval base in Arauca province, injuring two soldiers. Later on Wednesday an ELN sniper killed a soldier, the defense ministry said, adding that troops are in the area and would launch offensives against the group.

State oil company Ecopetrol reported an attack on one of its facilities in a rural area of Casanare province.

“I deplore the decision by the ELN to reactivate its terrorist attacks,” Santos said in a televised address.

“The government was always willing to extend the ceasefire. Inexplicably, the ELN refused. Under the circumstances I have ordered the return of our chief negotiator to evaluate the future of talks.”

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The group’s first-ever ceasefire, which began in October, ended overnight. The ELN has said it will not extend the truce under the original terms and wants a new deal.

Pablo Beltran, chief ELN negotiator in Quito, said the group had adhered to the conditions of the ceasefire and that the two sides had always agreed to evaluate new terms after the 101-day truce expired.

He said Wednesday’s attacks occurred in “complex situations” of war and that the group maintained its intention to negotiate a new ceasefire.

“We’re seeking a response from the government to see if it’s interested in finding a way out of this incident. If there’s a positive response, the ELN delegation will remain in Quito,” Beltran said.

“But if there’s no positive response we will have to return to Colombia.”

During the ceasefire, reached on Sept. 4, the insurgent group promised to suspend hostage-taking, attacks on roads and oil installations, the use of landmines and the recruitment of minors. In turn, the government agreed to improve protection for community leaders and conditions for about 450 jailed rebels.

The 2,000-strong ELN has hurt the oil industry with its regular bombings of infrastructure and has taken numerous oil workers hostage over the years.

Santos, who leaves office this year, signed a peace deal with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in late 2016 after negotiations in Cuba that lasted four years.

The FARC is now a political party with a candidate for president in May elections.

The ELN, founded by radical Roman Catholic priests in 1964, has sought peace with the government before but made little progress. It is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Editing by Tom Brown and Matthew Lewis