Colombia's government, ELN guerrillas complete first round of talks

CARACAS, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Representatives of Colombia's government and of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas completed the first round of peace talks in Venezuela's capital Caracas on Monday, with the next round of negotiations to take place in Mexico.

The two sides restarted peace talks on Nov. 21 with the intention of ending the ELN's part in Colombia's almost six decades of armed conflict, which has left at least 450,000 dead.

Mexico will hold the next round of talks starting in January, said Mexico's ambassador in Caracas, Leopoldo de Gyves, after the North American country agreed to be an official guarantor for the peace talks.

Pablo Beltran, head of the ELN delegation, said talks would restart in the first quarter of next year.

Speaking from Bogota Colombia's Defense Minister, Ivan Velasquez, on Monday acknowledged "a noticeable drop in operations" by the ELN since the talks restarted.

In a joint statement the negotiating parties said they had reached four points of agreement so far, including acknowledging the serious violence and the need for emergency attention for Colombia's provinces of Choco and Valle del Cauca, without giving further details.

The statement also reported that the ELN - accused of financing itself through kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking and illegal mining - has released 20 hostages since August.

Beltran did not respond when asked how many people the group was still holding.

Talks between the ELN and the government of Juan Manuel Santos began in 2017 in Ecuador, later moving to Cuba, but were called off in 2019 by Santos' successor, Ivan Duque, because the ELN refused to halt hostilities and killed 22 police cadets in a bombing.

The ELN, which has some 2,400 combatants and was founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by David Gregorio

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