Colombia extends peace talks to second big rebel force

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Caracas (AFP) - Colombia's government launched peace negotiations with the country's second-biggest guerrilla group, setting its sights on a total end to a bloody half-century conflict.

Bogota hopes the talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) will bring it on board alongside Colombia's biggest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a bid to end what is seen as the last major armed confrontation in the West.

"If we achieve peace, it will be the end of the guerrillas in Colombia and therefore in Latin America," said President Juan Manuel Santos.

His chief negotiator Frank Pearl and ELN commander Antonio Garcia announced the decision in a joint statement earlier after meeting in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

The government and ELN "have agreed to set up public talks... in order to sign a final accord to end the armed conflict and agree on changes in search of peace and equity," they said.

The ELN is a leftist group like the FARC, but they have fought as rivals for territory in a many-sided conflict that started as a peasant uprising in 1964.

While the FARC has observed a ceasefire since last year as its own peace talks have advanced, the ELN has continued attacks. Indeed, government data show the ELN alone has been to blame for 28 percent of recent attacks on civilians in Colombia.

Accords bringing in the government and the FARC and ELN would establish peace between the main remaining players in the conflict, which over the decades has drawn in right- and left-wing guerrillas, government troops and drug trafficking gangs.

"A peace process with the ELN means that Colombia now has the opportunity to end completely the 52 years of armed conflict with both guerrilla groups," said Kyle Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

The government and ELN said six other countries will act as guarantors of the peace process: Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway and Venezuela.

In a Twitter message the FARC's chief negotiator Ivan Marquez called it "a historic moment for Colombia."

South American regional bloc UNASUR said in a statement the new negotiations were the "missing piece" of the peace drive. Cuba and Venezuela were among countries that hailed the breakthrough.

- Complex peace process -

Santos's government has been holding talks in Havana with the FARC since 2012.

They had aimed to sign a peace agreement on March 23 but that deadline passed with no deal as key issues have not yet been resolved, including disarmament.

The negotiations with the ELN "are of a very different nature from the Havana process because the ELN and the FARC are very different organizations," Santos said in a speech in Colombia after Wednesday's announcement.

"But the end of the conflict is one and the same," he added.

He said any deal with the ELN would be subject to the same measures due to be approved under any agreement with the FARC.

Those include ceasefire procedures and the setting up of a special tribunal for hearing cases linked to the conflict.

The grinding territorial standoff has killed more than 260,000 people, uprooted 6.6 million people and left a further 45,000 missing.

Inspired by the Cuban revolution, the ELN was founded in 1964, the same year as the FARC.

Officials estimate the ELN currently has some 1,500 members and the FARC about 7,000.

One Colombian government source who asked not to be named said the ELN's lack of a top-down command structure "has made negotiations for a roadmap more complex."

As the talks with the FARC have advanced, tensions have remained high with the ELN, which unlike the FARC has not declared a ceasefire.

The ELN recently released two hostages, a Colombian soldier and a politician.

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