December 19, 2017 / 1:48 PM / a year ago

Colombia names new peace negotiator with ELN, seeks ceasefire extension

FILE PHOTO: Colombian President Andres Pastrana (R) talks with Defense Minister Gustavo Bell during a ceremony at a military school in Bogota, Colombia April 23, 2002. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte/File Photo

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday named Gustavo Bell as the government’s chief negotiator in peace talks with Marxist ELN rebels and said the government will work toward extending a ceasefire with the insurgent group.

Bell, who was vice president under President Andres Pastrana from 1998 to 2002 and is currently ambassador to Cuba, replaces Juan Camilo Restrepo, who guided talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) since they began in February.

Santos said in a televised address the government hopes to extend a ceasefire that began in October and ends on Jan. 9.

“With the ELN, we have for the first time achieved a stoppage of hostilities that, while not perfect, has been positive. We will work toward improving it and extending it in January,” Santos said.

The ELN on Sunday said it is willing to continue the ceasefire if there is sufficient progress in peace talks. It said it would assess the government’s willingness to overcome hurdles.

The ELN and the government have been in negotiations in Quito for 10 months, after a long and secret exploratory phase, in a bid to end more than 53 years of war.

Santos, who leaves office next year, signed a peace accord in late 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has now become a political party and hopes to fight the government at the ballot box.

The ELN’s first-ever ceasefire is being supervised by the Roman Catholic Church and the United Nations.

The 2,000-strong ELN, which has regularly bombed oil infrastructure and taken hostages, has continued kidnapping despite the ceasefire. An indigenous leader in Choco province died in October after being taken by the group.

Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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