Colombia, ELN rebels have made first steps toward ceasefire

BOGOTA, March 10 (Reuters) - Colombia's government and the left-wing ELN guerrilla group have taken the first steps toward a bilateral, temporary ceasefire, the heads of their delegations at peace talks said on Friday, as they closed their second cycle of negotiations in Mexico City.

The ELN is Colombia's oldest remaining rebel group, and the talks are the cornerstone of efforts by leftist President Gustavo Petro - himself once a member of the now-demobilized M-19 insurgents - to bring "total peace" to Colombia.

Petro has vowed to negotiate peace or surrender deals with remaining rebels and crime gangs and to fully implement a previous accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed in 2016.

"We took the first steps to firm up a bilateral, national and temporary ceasefire which will create better conditions for Colombians' mobilization and participation in the peace process," said the ELN's Pablo Beltran.

The ceasefire will be a top challenge for the third cycle, set to take place in Cuba, as will developing a "pilot plan" for peace and expanding participation in the talks, said Otty Patino, head of the government's delegation.

A ceasefire would mark important progress after confusion over Petro's announcement late last year about an agreed halt to hostilities forced the two sides to hold brief emergency discussions in Caracas.

On New Year's Eve, Petro announced a ceasefire, but days later the ELN said it had not agreed to the measure.

Previous negotiations with the ELN faltered on the group's diffuse chain of command and dissent within its ranks, though leaders have said fighters are on board with current talks.

The ELN, founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, has some 2,500 combatants and is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnapping.

Colombia's conflict, which has run for nearly six decades, has killed at least 450,000 people.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Josie Kao

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