The Colombian government and Marxist rebels from the ELN – the National Liberation Army – have begun official peace talks, hosted by neighbouring Ecuador in the capital Quito.
Colombia’s second-largest rebel group hopes to seal an agreement similar to that negotiated last year with the FARC, which has been allowed to form a political party in exchange for surrendering weapons.
The ELN is considered a terrorist group by the US and the EU.
“To end the armed conflict requires for us to first acknowledge that political and social conflict will continue, and that the way to address it is through dialogue,” announced Pablo Beltran, the ELN’s delegation chief.
For more than half a century the ELN has carried out bombings, extortion and kidnappings.
It is still estimated to have up to 2,000 armed fighters and thousands more active supporters.
The government representative set out its objectives: “To invite ELN to give the Colombian people, hopefully soon, the great news that it’s publicly renouncing kidnappings. Without this decision from ELN, it would be difficult to make progress towards any accord,” Juan Camilo Restrepo said.
The talks were made possible after the ELN freed two hostages – a condition set by the government.
A politician – in captivity for almost 10 months – and a soldier, who had been held for nearly two weeks, were released in separate locations.
The ELN was founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba’s revolution. Its weaponry is thought to be less powerful than the FARC but its support among the Colombian population is said to stretch further.