Colombia's ELN sees no peace deal before 2018 elections

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia’s second biggest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), said on Thursday it did not expect to have reached a peace agreement by the 2018 elections and criticized the government for failing to tackle right-wing paramilitary groups.

The ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held a joint news conference on Thursday in the Cuban capital after meeting in Havana with the government’s approval to discuss their respective approaches to ending a half-century of civil war in the Andean country.

This was their first public meeting since the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government last November, after four years of talks in Havana. Its fighters have begun to disarm and reintegrate into civilian life.

Meanwhile, the ELN is also holding peace talks with the government in Quito, Ecuador, which it will renew on Tuesday, May 16.

Asked if the ELN expected to reach a peace deal before the 2018 presidential and legislative elections, ELN Commander Nicolas Rodriguez, known as “Gabino,” said: “The truth is we do not think so.”

In a joint statement with the FARC, the ELN said it was committed to creating a more democratic country in Colombia and taking the violence out of the political fight.

More than 220,000 people have died in the conflict between the government, the ELN, the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries, while millions have been displaced from their homes.

“We have to say with regret that we do not see the government’s will to tackle, as it should, paramilitaries as a phenomenon that threatens peace,” said Rodriguez.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; writing by Sarah Marsh, editing by G Crosse