ELN rebel group denies ceasefire with Colombian government

President Gustavo Petro has asserted that five armed groups, including the ELN, committed to six months of peace through June.

ELN's Pablo Beltran shakes hands with Otty Patino of the Colombian government
Representatives from the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian rebel group, met with a delegation from the government in Caracas, Venezuela, at the end of last year in the first peace talks since 2018 [File: Matias Delacroix/AP]

A leftist rebel group in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), says it is not part of a ceasefire with the government that had been announced by the president.

On New Year’s Eve, President Gustavo Petro made a bold pronouncement on Twitter: Five of the country’s illegal armed groups had agreed to a six-month ceasefire.

“Total peace will be a reality,” Petro wrote, echoing his promises to bring the country’s decades-long armed conflict to an end.

But on Tuesday, the ELN issued a statement refuting claims that it had agreed to the ceasefire.

“The ELN Dialogue Delegation has not discussed any proposal for a bilateral ceasefire with the government of Gustavo Petro,” the ELN wrote in a press release. “Therefore, no such agreement exists.”

The group has instead called the ceasefire “a proposal to be examined”.

“At various occasions, we have pointed out that the ELN only complies with what is discussed and agreed upon at the negotiating table we participate in,” the press release said. “A unilateral government decree cannot be accepted as an agreement.”

The ELN made the announcement after Colombia’s last recognised rebel group resumed peace talks in November for the first time since 2018. It had become Colombia’s largest remaining illegal armed group after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissolved in the wake of a 2016 peace deal with the government.

The ELN was founded by far-left priests in 1964 and grew to 2,400 to 4,000 members. It has financed its operations through drug trafficking, illegal mining and other elicit activities, expanding into territory formerly controlled by FARC.

Both the United States and the European Union have designated the ELN a “terrorist” organisation.

Internal dissent had prevented the ELN from returning to peace negotiations until Petro’s presidency. Petro — a former rebel fighter who turned to politics, becoming a senator and mayor of the capital, Bogota — promised to bring “total peace” to Colombia when he was sworn in as the country’s first left-wing president in August.

Conflict has gripped the country since the 1960s with the government, leftist guerrilla groups and far-right paramilitary forces all vying for power. Colombia’s Truth Commission estimates that more than 450,664 people have been killed in the six decades of fighting.

The ELN and government representatives met in Venezuela in November to try to end the conflict. Countries including Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Cuba and Norway had also been invited to participate as “guarantors”, helping to oversee the talks and ensure that any commitments are observed.

Although the reconvened peace talks have apparently so far resulted in no ceasefire, both the group and Colombia’s government said in a joint statement that the first round of negotiations had “ended successfully” in December.

Among the agreements reached was a pact to allow the Embera Indigenous community to return to its lands in western Colombia after being displaced by fighting. The ELN and the government also agreed to a four-point deal that included an acknowledgement of the violence and a call for emergency aid to the provinces of Choco and Valle del Cauca.

A new round of peace talks is to begin this month in Mexico.

After December’s peace talks, the ELN shared on social media that it would unilaterally impose a temporary ceasefire from December 24 to Monday. But the ELN did say it would defend itself if attacked.

The Colombian president’s New Year’s Eve announcement said an even broader ceasefire had gone into effect from Sunday.

That ceasefire was to include not only the ELN but also four other armed groups: the Second Marquetalia, the Central General Staff, the AGC group and the Self-Defence Forces of the Sierra Nevada.

Petro said the ceasefire would have lasted until June 30 and would have included a “national and international verification mechanism” to ensure its terms were being followed.

“This is a bold act. The bilateral ceasefire obliges the armed organizations and the state to respect it,” Petro wrote on Twitter.

Petro’s announcement was hailed as a “breakthrough” by the United Nations. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the development “brings renewed hope for comprehensive peace” in 2023.

Petro’s office has offered no immediate comment in the wake of the ELN’s denial that the ceasefire exists, but it said the president would consult with Colombia’s high peace commissioner and officials in the Ministries of the Interior and National Defence.

Pablo Beltran, one of the chief negotiators for the ELN, had said in December that he hopes a ceasefire could be reached in the upcoming negotiations in Mexico.

“Once we conclude what is planned, we will be in a position to discuss the bilateral ceasefire proposal,” the ELN said on Tuesday, referring to the Mexico peace talks.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies