Colombia to investigate ELN rebel leaders for nearly 16,000 war crimes

Defected members of Colombian guerrilla group ELN walk to a military base to surrender and handover their weapons, in Cali July 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s attorney general’s office is investigating five top leaders from the country’s ELN guerrilla group for nearly 16,000 war crimes and crimes against humanity, the office said on Wednesday.

The allegations come amid heightened tensions between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the government. The two sides announced in March they would begin formal peace talks to end more than 50 years of war, but continued kidnappings and attacks on oil infrastructure by the rebels have so far stymied the process.

ELN top leader Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, better known by his nom de guerre, Gabino, and four other high-level rebels are the focus of the investigations, the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

The 15,896 crimes included in the case cover murders - including those of a senator and a bishop - kidnappings, forced recruitment, displacement, bombings and gender-based violence.

“We are investigating the origin, evolution, expansion, policies and strategies of the ELN, their structures and those chiefly responsible for crimes of war and against humanity committed during the conflict,” attorney general Jorge Fernando Perdomo said.

Inspired by Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the ELN has battled a dozen Colombian governments since it was founded by radical Catholic priests in 1964. The group frequently bombs pipelines and other installations related to Colombia’s oil industry.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Sandra Maler