May 12, 2015 / 7:49 PM / 3 years ago

Colombia rebel leaders met secretly to pursue peace talks: government

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The head of Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels has met with his counterpart in the smaller ELN guerrilla group to try to convince him to bring his movement into peace talks, a senior government negotiator said on Tuesday.The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been in peace talks with the government for more than two years, but the ELN, or National Liberation Army, is still mulling whether to enter into negotiations.

Colombian guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN) Commander Nicolas Rodriguez, known as "Gabino", gestures as he speaks in response to questions from Reuters at a hidden jungle camp in this still image taken from an undated video released April 23, 2015. REUTERS/ELN/Handout via Reuters

Both groups have been fighting the government for 50 years in a war that has killed more than 220,000 people and created one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator with FARC, said the group’s leader, Rodrigo Londono, who is better known as “Timochenko,” met the ELN’s Nicolas Rodriguez, or “Gabino,” in Cuba in late April.

“Detailed explanation to the ELN of the advances in Havana is intended to bring about a complete end to armed conflict,” De la Calle said.

He did not provide details on the ELN’s response.

The ELN is already in preliminary talks with the government to explore the idea of starting peace negotiations. Rodriguez told Reuters last month both sides were now close to starting a full-fledged peace effort. [ID:nL1N0XL0W9]

A military onslaught that started in 2000 is believed to have halved the FARC’s ranks to around 8,000 and the ELN’s to far fewer than that.

President Juan Manuel Santos said last year that peace talks with the ELN, like the FARC‘s, would take place abroad. The FARC discussions have covered land reform, political reform, ending the drugs trade and victim reparations.

Although the government and FARC have completed more than half of the agenda for their talks, a final agreement is subject to a national referendum. Success is not assured, given public revolt at the FARC’s insistence that members not serve prison time.

The ELN, which once controlled large swathes of territory, said in January it would consider declaring a ceasefire if it enters peace talks, weeks after the FARC declared its own conditional end to battlefield combat.

While peace efforts are advancing in Cuba, tensions flared up at home after the FARC killed at least 11 government troops in an ambush last month and ELN members last week displayed a soldier’s leg blown off by a landmine.

Reporting by Peter Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn

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