Colombia’s government and rebels from the National Liberation Army have agreed to revive a stalled peace effort, providing a boost to President Juan Manuel Santos as he tries to recover from voters’ shocking rejection of a deal with the much-larger FARC guerrilla group.
The rebels and government officials said Monday that formal peace talks would begin Oct. 27 in Ecuador. In a statement from Venezuela, whose socialist government is co-sponsoring the peace process, the guerrilla group known as the ELN committed itself to freeing two captives it has been holding for months before the talks begin.
The two sides announced in March that they would start peace talks. But the talks never got off the ground after Santos demanded the ELN renounce kidnapping after its fighters took a prominent politician captive.
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Earlier Monday, the group handed over to the International Red Cross a rice farmer it had held captive for months. It was the third person freed by the group in an area near Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela in the past two weeks.
Of the two remaining captives the most prominent is politician Odin Sanchez, who in April handed himself over to the rebels in order to secure the release of his brother, a former governor of Choco state. The ELN had been demanding a $1 million ransom for his release.
Santos, winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has staked his presidency on ending a half century of bloody combat in Colombia. But after signing a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in front of world leaders on Sept. 26, he’s watched as his hopes for peace were shattered by voters’ rejection of the accord in a referendum just six days later.
Since then, Santos has been scrambling to build a broader coalition in support of peace, one that would include the opposition and bring the ELN to the negotiating table.
The ELN is Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, with an estimated 1,500 fighters, and largely finances its insurgency through extortion and kidnappings. Like the FARC, it is classified by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.
Unlike the peasant-based FARC, the ELN shares a tradition with other leftist insurgencies in Latin America that were formed by urban students and intellectuals in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.