By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador said on Wednesday it hosted meetings between representatives of Colombia's government and the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels it has been fighting for 50 years, which aim to start peace negotiations.
Neighboring Colombia has been negotiating with the larger FARC rebel movement for more than two years and completed most of the talks agenda. It announced last June it was also seeking to draw the ELN into separate peace talks, a possibility that appears to be gaining momentum.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa did not disclose where and when the preliminary talks between Colombian authorities and the ELN took place, but said his country remained willing to assist again if required.
Colombian "President (Juan Manuel) Santos asked us, discreetly, confidentially, if we could help with facilities for discussions with the ELN and this was done," Correa said in a meeting with foreign correspondents.
"If they need Ecuador to make this space available again for these talks, obviously we are at Colombia's disposal," he said.
ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez, better known by his alias "Gabino," told Reuters in an exclusive interview last month he believed formal negotiations would start soon.
In a further sign of progress, it was disclosed on Tuesday that the head of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño or "Timochenko," met with Gabino in late April in Havana to convince him to agree to full-fledged peace negotiations.
The ranks of both groups have been decimated since the start of a U.S.-backed military offensive in 2000. The FARC now has an estimated 8,000 members and the ELN far fewer.
Santos has said any peace negotiations with the ELN will be held separately from those with the FARC. If a peace deal with the FARC is reached, it will need to be approved in a nationwide referendum.
Though battlefield combat and the rebels' once frequent attacks against the country's oil and mining infrastructure have subsided, particularly since the FARC declared a cease-fire in December, there are still occasional attacks on army troops.
Colombia's five-decade civil war mushroomed out of a peasant revolt to demand land reform in a country where stark economic inequality persists. The conflict, marked by years of bloodshed, kidnapping and extortion has killed around 220,000 and created one of the world's largest populations of internally displaced persons.
(Writing by Peter Murphy, editing by G Crosse)