March 12, 2018 / 5:29 PM / 6 months ago

Colombia's Santos says will restart talks with ELN rebels

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia and the Marxist ELN guerrilla group will restart peace talks in Ecuador, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Monday, after a six-week pause marked by deaths on both sides.

Santos suspended talks in late January after the National Liberation Army (ELN) launched a series of bomb attacks that killed eight police officers and injured dozens, immediately following the end of the two sides’ first-ever ceasefire.

“Since the bilateral ceasefire ended, there have been too many deaths on both sides, too many wounded, too many victims - this is what we must stop,” Santos said in a televised address.

“And that can only be achieved by talking,” he said, adding he hoped the two sides could agree to another ceasefire.

Santos has said the halt to talks was a dilemma and hinted he could scrap them entirely, though he applauded the unilateral ceasefire held by the rebels during legislative elections. He acknowledges talks are unpopular and has slammed the group for its attacks on the armed forces.

Santos did not specify a start date for the renewed talks, but said the government negotiators will travel back to Quito.

Colombian forces have killed 34 rebels in fighting since the ceasefire ended on Jan. 9, while rebels have launched repeated attacks, killed 19 members of the armed forces and halted pumping of crude oil with bomb attacks.

The ELN said in a statement it would answer Santos’ call to return to negotiations and reiterated the desire for another bilateral ceasefire.

“We join President Santos’ call to restart talks, with the conviction that it is better to have dialogue in the midst of a bilateral ceasefire.”

Talks with the former FARC rebel group, which signed a 2016 peace deal, were also fraught at times. Santos suspended talks when that group, now a political party, kidnapped a general. The peace deal failed in a referendum, but eventually passed through Congress.

The ELN, founded by Roman Catholic priests in 1964, is considered more radical than the FARC and is less centralized. The group has sought peace with the government before but made little progress.

Presidential elections in May could determine the fate of the talks.

Left-wing candidates, including the Liberals’ Humberto de la Calle, who was the government’s head negotiator at the FARC talks, say negotiations are positive but not a panacea. Right-leaning candidates accuse Santos of failing to make a fair deal with the FARC - including by allowing ex-rebels to avoid jail sentences.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Matthew Lewis

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