Exploratory peace talks between the Colombian government and the country’s second-largest Marxist guerrilla group ended on Monday with no agreement other than to meet again in April.
Colombian peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo and leaders of the Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army, or ELN, said they would hold a third round of preliminary talks in Havana at the beginning of April.
They hope to thrash out an agenda then for formal peace negotiations to end four decades of fighting.
“I do not think peace is around the corner,” Antonio Garcia, top military commander of the 5,000-strong rebel force, told reporters.
But he said a major advance during the talks hosted by Cuba was political recognition for the ELN delegation by the Colombian government, which had until then labeled the ELN as a criminal and terrorist group.
The military leader of Colombia’s ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) guerrilla group Antonio Garcia (L) greets the Colombian peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo during a news conference in Havana February 27, 2006. REUTERS/Enrique de La Osa
In an effort to build trust, Colombia agreed on Friday to suspend capture orders for Garcia, one of the country’s most wanted guerrilla leaders, and another ELN commander involved in the talks, Ramiro Vargas.
The ELN, founded in 1964 by radical students and Roman Catholic priests, is demanding wide-ranging political reforms in Colombia to broaden democratic participation in what it considers a state long ruled by wealthy elites.
The government wants a ceasefire, but the matter has not even been discussed yet in the two rounds of talks that began in December in Havana.
The agreement to continue talking will be a boost for Colombia’s popular conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, who is seeking re-election in May. A close Washington ally, Uribe was elected in 2002 on promises to crush the Marxist insurgency.
Colombia’s main leftist guerrilla group, the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, says it cannot deal with Uribe and has rejected a proposed prisoner exchange.