BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's second-largest rebel group said Wednesday it's willing to lay down its weapons if government-brokered peace talks open political space for leftist groups.
The National Liberation Army made the announcement by releasing a video in which the group's top commander, Nicolas Rodriguez, addresses guerrilla fighters gathered in the jungle for a clandestine congress.
In the video, the guerrilla leader best known by his nom de guerre Gabino says the group is willing to enter dialogue with the government aimed at ending the half-century conflict.
Although he didn't provide any details about the next steps, it was the clearest sign yet that the ELN is prepared to take up the government's offer, repeated this week by President Juan Manuel Santos, to initiate a formal peace process like the one underway the past two years with the much-larger and more-powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Until now the two sides have held only informal, exploratory talks.
Founded 50 years ago by Rodriguez and a group of leftist Roman Catholic priests and activists inspired by Cuba's revolution, the ELN has about 2,000 fighters, compared to some 8,000 for the FARC.
The group, considered a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, has a long history of kidnapping foreigners for ransom, of extorting businesses and of sabotaging Colombia's main oil pipeline.
The apparent engagement with the ELN comes as Santos tries to close in on a deal with the FARC, holding out this week the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire to reflect what he considers the group's demonstrated commitment to reduce hostilities.