Colombia to sign ceasefire with last major rebel group ahead of Pope Francis' visit

Bogota: Colombia's government will sign a bilateral ceasefire with the nation's last remaining major rebel group ahead of Pope Francis' visit this week, President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday.

Santos said the agreement will be signed later in the day in Quito, Ecuador, where negotiations with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have been taking place since February.

The ceasefire, whose details were being ironed out as late as Monday morning, would take effect 1 October and initially run through 12 January, at which time it can be renewed if the two sides agree, he said. "The pope is arriving amid a unique moment in our history, as we turn the page on an absurd conflict and look to the future with hope," Santos said in a televised address.

The cease-fire, five years to the date after the signing of a framework agreement that kicked off ultimately successful talks with the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could be a major step toward securing a lasting peace.

 Colombia to sign ceasefire with last major rebel group ahead of Pope Francis visit

File image of Colombia president Juan Manuel Santos. AP

More than five decades of conflict in involving the two rebel movements, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups have resulted in more than 2,60,000 deaths, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of 6 million.

Reconciliation is expected to be a central theme of the visit by Francis, who in 2015 publicly urged government and FARC negotiators not to waste a chance to strike a lasting peace.

Under the deal between the government and the FARC, the group has turned over its weapons and is in the process of reorganizing as a political movement to compete in elections 2018. But negotiations with the more ideological and less centralised ELN have been slower since exploratory talks began more than three years ago.

Unlike the FARC, which financed itself through involvement in Colombia's flourishing drug trade, the ELN funds its insurgency mainly through kidnappings and extortion. Until now it has refused to abandon those practices, earning the enmity of many Colombians who want Santos to take a tougher line in talks than he did with the FARC.

"The priority is protecting citizens," Santos said. "That's why during this period the kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and other hostilities against the civilian population will cease."

Labeled a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union, the ELN has also stepped up its attacks on the nation's energy infrastructure in 2017.

Last week state-run oil company Ecopetrol was forced to close the country's second-largest pipeline after it was blasted by a bomb, dumping crude into an adjacent watershed. It was the 43rd attack in 2017 against the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline.

The ELN, whose founders five decades ago included radical Roman Catholic priests, is believed to have about 1,500 active fighters.

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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2017 07:12:42 IST