Colombia peace process must solve causes of conflict - ELN rebel commander

Antonio Garcia, head of the delegation of National Liberation Army (ELN) for formal peace talks with Colombian government, talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

BOGOTA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The top commander of Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, which is exploring a resumption of peace talks with the leftist government, told Reuters any process must seek profound change for all of society and not political power for a few guerrilla commanders.

New President Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 urban guerrillas, has promised to seek "total peace" by fully implementing a 2016 peace deal with the now-demobilized FARC rebels, restarting ELN talks and dialoguing with crime gangs.

"What is essential for a peace process is to overcome the causes which originated the armed conflict, to even think they are overcome with a few (congressional) seats for a handful of rebels would be miserly," said Eliecer Herlinto Chamorro, better known by his nom de guerre, Antonio Garcia.

He was answering questions sent by Reuters about whether the ELN will become a political party after a peace deal.

The FARC deal saw the demobilization of its 13,000 members and the creation of political party Comunes, which has 10 seats in congress guaranteed until 2026 which have been assigned to former guerrilla leaders.

"It's about achieving real change for the good of all society, real and participative democracy for communities and social organizations, making Colombian society more equitable, with social justice, respect for human rights, that political persecution of those who protest for just rights and the murders of leaders end definitively," said Garcia.

Lack of land access, deep economic inequality, historic persecution of leftists and lack of democratic participation are considered the principal causes of Colombia's six-decade conflict between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs, which has killed at least 450,000 people.

UNITED FRONT

Garcia, 66, said the demobilization of the ELN - accused of forcibly recruiting minors, drug trafficking, murders, kidnappings and bombing attacks - will be resolved at the negotiating table.

Though Petro has said talks should be carried out quickly, the quality of any agreements will be a variable when determining the negotiations' timeline, Garcia said.

The most recent talks with the ELN collapsed under Petro's predecessor, after the group refused to suspend armed action and killed 22 police cadets in an early 2019 bombing.

Other attempts at dialogue have failed to bear fruit because of a diffuse chain of command and dissent within the ranks of the ELN, which was founded by radical Catholic priests in 1964 and counts some 2,400 fighters.

There is precedent for rebel resistance to peace deals - several top FARC commanders reject that deal and remain armed in dissident groups, with whom Petro also wants to dialogue. read more

But Garcia said the eight ELN units operating in the jungles and mountains of Colombia are united with their negotiators - many of them elderly, unlike most fighters - who remained in Cuba after the collapse of previous talks.

"The ELN remains united by political identity and its democratic methods to construct policy in a constructive way and try to solve differences," he said, echoing recent comments by the group's head negotiator in Havana. "We will stay united, that is the decision of the last (rebel) congress, and we will face any challenge united." read more

Garcia said profound changes are needed in Colombia - where about half the population lives in some degree of poverty - but those in power must first be held to account.

"Even though the country requires adjustments to its fundamental laws, what most affects us is the lack of compliance with laws by those who hold power," he said.

(This story has been refiled to add dropped word 'be' in third paragraph)

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Alistair Bell

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