Colombia rejects Venezuela as guarantor of peace talks with ELN rebels

 Colombia rejects Venezuela as guarantor of peace talks with ELN rebels

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Colombia will not accept Venezuela as a guarantor of peace talks if it decides to continue negotiations with Marxist ELN guerrillas, President Ivan Duque said on Thursday, citing the neighboring country's alleged support for rebel activities.

Duque, who has been visiting New York for the United Nations General Assembly, said in his inaugural address last month he would take 30 days to evaluate the talks, which began in 2017 under his predecessor. The deadline has passed without a definitive decision from the right-wing Colombian leader on whether they will continue.

He has urged the 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN) to free all hostages as a condition for resuming dialogue. The group has so far released nine, all members of the security forces or military contractors. A remaining 10 hostages are civilians.

Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Brazil and Norway have served as so-called guarantors at negotiations with the ELN, which were being held in Cuba until just before Duque took office.

Guarantors are meant to be neutral facilitators of the talks, providing negotiating facilities and other help.

But Colombia's government and armed forces have long accused Venezuela of allowing rebel groups to cross into its territory freely and hide out there.

"A country that has supported the ELN in its territory, protecting it, which has allowed criminal acts against the Colombian people to be forged in its territory is far from being a guarantor," Duque told journalists before his return flight to Bogota.

"I can't see as a guarantor a country that has been a protector of armed groups in its territory."

Venezuela, which is reeling from a crushing economic and social crisis as thousands flee in search of scarce food and medicine, previously served as a guarantor in talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Those talks ended in a 2016 peace deal under which the FARC, once much larger than the ELN, demobilized and formed a political party.

Venezuela's leftist government and an ELN representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Duque's remarks.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brown)

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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2018 00:06:51 IST