Colombia to announce peace talks with ELN rebels: sources

A graffiti, of rebel group Army Liberation National (ELN) is seen at the entrance of the cemetery of El Palo, Cauca, Colombia, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga (Reuters)

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's government and second-biggest rebel group will on Monday announce the start of peace talks, sources said, in what would be a boost for President Juan Manuel Santos after the rejection of his deal with the larger FARC guerrilla group. The negotiations with the 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN) will be confirmed by representatives of both sides at a news conference in Venezuela scheduled for this evening, two government sources told Reuters. The talks are then expected to take place in Ecuador. The Colombian government and the ELN will make an announcement at 2000 EST in Caracas, the governments of Venezuela and Colombia said in a statement on Monday. Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize last week for his efforts to end a 52-year-old war with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: a surprising choice given voters narrowly rejected a deal he signed with them last month. At war for five decades after being founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba's revolution, the ELN has been in on-and-off closed-door talks with the government since January 2014 on how the two sides would conduct peace negotiations and what would be on the table. It has remained active during that time, kidnapping and bombing oil installations, though in recent months it has released some captives. It is not clear how many hostages the group still holds. The group has sought peace before, holding talks in Cuba and Venezuela between 2002 and 2007. While Santos' peace accord with the FARC was internationally lauded, it was narrowly rebuffed in a plebiscite as too lenient on the rebels, who formed in 1964 as a peasant rebellion. Former President Alvaro Uribe is now leading the effort to change the agreement that would have given the FARC guaranteed congressional seats and immunity from traditional jail sentences. His side won by half a percentage point. Peace with the two groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in a country also ravaged by unrest from drug trafficking and other crime. But it would allow economic development in once-off-limits areas and shift more military resources to fighting growing criminal gangs. Santos, whose two-term rule ends in August 2018, has staked his reputation on inking peace deals with both rebel groups. He is donating his Nobel prize, worth 8 million Swedish crowns ($930,000), to Colombia's conflict victims. (Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jiame Acosta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)