Colombia’s ELN would respond with force to any break in ceasefire, says leader

By Thomson Reuters Feb 19, 2024 | 10:25 AM

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels will respond with military force to any break in their ceasefire with the government, leader Antonio Garcia told Reuters, predicting that the current stage of peace talks will end in 2025.

President Gustavo Petro restarted negotiations with the group, founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, as part of his bid to reach “total peace” in the South American country, whose six-decade conflict has killed at least 450,000 people.

The two sides have held six rounds of talks so far, agreeing a bilateral ceasefire last year that was recently extended for another six months.

The ELN has also pledged to end kidnapping for ransom, long a preferred rebel financing technique.

“If they attack us, our structures will defend themselves, it is legitimate to defend yourself,” Garcia said in answer to written questions, detailing a recent incident when he says soldiers approached a camp and ELN fighters fired into the air.

“For now on, if they abandon military honor, our combatants will respond in an effective way, they will open fire to enemy advances and defend themselves,” he said.

Garcia, offering no evidence, said dissidents from the FARC rebels, who reject a 2016 peace deal signed by that group, and the Clan del Golfo crime gang are dedicated to drug trafficking and have ties to state intelligence.

The ELN, which has 5,800 members and some 3,000 combatants, has long been accused of financing itself with drugs.

The armed forces did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but two high-level sources denied any military connections to illegal armed groups.

The government is also holding talks with the two largest groups of FARC dissidents, but efforts for a surrender deal with the Clan collapsed.

Funding agreed by the two sides at the ELN talks will go toward peace efforts and supporting ELN fighters’ basic needs during the ceasefire, Garcia said. The suspension of kidnapping for ransom means the group can only sustain itself for three months, he said.

The current third stage of talks, which includes debate about social investments, could end next year, he said, but will depend on the government’s upholding the ceasefire.

The agenda includes a further two phases, and there may be little time to agree a deal before Petro, who said when talks began they would move quickly, leaves office in 2026.

Observers have long expressed fears that the ELN, which is considered more radical than the FARC, may not be able to agree a deal. Previous talks with the group have faltered on a diffuse chain of command and dissent among fighters.

The group is united, Garcia added, and wants Colombia to change for the better.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Leslie Adler)