BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — 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 brief 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. Additional unspecified humanitarian actions on both sides would also take place.
In March, the ELN and government announced that they would start formal peace negotiations. But the effort never got off the ground after the government demanded the ELN renounce kidnapping and free a prominent politician who turned himself over to the rebels in order to secure his brother's release.
Earlier Monday, the group handed over to the International Red Cross a rice farmer, Nelson Alarcon, it had held captive for months. It was the third person freed by the group in an area near Colombia's border with Venezuela in the past two weeks.
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 the defeat, Santos has been scrambling to build a broader coalition in support of peace, one that would include the opposition and finally bring the ideologically strident ELN to the negotiating table after more than two years of exploratory talks and false starts.
In a televised address he celebrated the apparent breakthrough and pledged not to give up on a peace deal with the FARC.
"Now that we're advancing with the ELN our peace will be a fuller one," Santos said
But he also sent a sharp message to opponents led by former President Alvaro Uribe, urging them not to delay consultations unnecessarily and be realistic in their proposals to adjust the 297-page accord that took more than four years to negotiate.
"We have to work with speed and promptness because our biggest enemy now is time," Santos said. "The eyes of the world are upon us and they expect the best."
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.
Of the two remaining captives the ELN referred to in its statement Monday, 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 who had been held by the rebels for almost three years. The ELN had been demanding a $1 million ransom for his release.
Family members said they had been anxiously awaiting Sanchez's return in the afternoon but were confident he'd now be released in the coming hours or days.
"If today they are sitting together to initiate the negotiations it's a good omen," sister Astrid Sanchez told RCN network. "It's a sign that the ELN is going to pursue peace that we've all been longing for all these years."