Colombia says time running out for peace talks with ELN rebels

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s government on Tuesday warned the country’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), that time is running out to begin peace negotiations to end five decades of war.

The Colombian head of the delegation to the peace talks with the ELN guerrillas Frank Pearl speaks during a news conference at the Narino Palace in Bogota, Colombia in this February 2, 2016 handout photo provided by Colombian Presidency, REUTERS/Cesar Carrion/Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters

It called on the ELN to make clear and concrete efforts following its more than two years of exploratory peace talks so that formal negotiations can begin.

“Time is running out for the ELN to form part of a political solution to the armed conflict in Colombia,” said Frank Pearl, head of the government delegation engaged in preliminary talks with the ELN.

The ELN has been saying it is ready for full talks since April.

“If that organization truthfully wants to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict, it has to be capable of taking serious decisions and change its ambiguous and useless words and statements for clear and concrete efforts toward peace,” Pearl added.

He did not say what kind of steps he wanted the ELN to take.

President Juan Manuel Santos’s government is close to agreeing a peace accord with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation’s biggest rebel group, in talks underway in Cuba. Any ELN talks would be independent to those underway with the FARC.

More than 220,000 people have died in the conflict between the government, the ELN, the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries.

The ELN has battled a dozen governments since it was founded in 1964 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. It has continued kidnapping and attacks on infrastructure even as the talks continue.

Inspired by Cuba’s 1959 revolution and established by radical Catholic priests, the ELN was close to disappearing in the 1970s but steadily gained power again. It has about 2,000 fighters.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by W Simon