The Colombian government has backtracked on an announcement that it had reached a ceasefire with one of the country’s largest remaining armed groups, a day after National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels said they were not part of any such deal.
President Gustavo Petro had declared on New Year’s Eve that a temporary truce had been agreed with the country’s five largest armed groups, including the ELN, from January 1 to June 30.
But the ELN, which last month concluded a first round of peace talks with Petro’s left-wing government, said in a statement on Tuesday that it had “not discussed any proposal for a bilateral ceasefire” with Bogota and, “therefore, no such agreement exists.”
Instead, the group said, the ceasefire was a “proposal to be examined”.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Alfonso Prada said during a news conference that the ELN has raised the importance of a bilateral ceasefire on multiple occasions and asked the government to respond to a unilateral Christmas ceasefire by the ELN.
“Under this understanding, the Colombian government declared the bilateral ceasefire,” Prada told reporters. “But in the face of the position assumed publicly yesterday, under which the protocol of said ceasefire should be taken to the negotiating table, we have decided to suspend.”
The about-face comes as Petro continues to pursue his “total peace” plan, seeking to bring an end to nearly six decades of armed conflict, which killed at least 450,000 people from 1985 to 2018 alone.
The Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, which saw members of the left-wing rebel group disarm. But some FARC dissidents rejected the deal and have picked up weapons again.
Violence has surged in Colombia in recent years, especially in parts of the country that lay outside government control and where armed groups are involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities. The Indepaz research institute recorded nearly 100 massacres last year.
Peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN in neighbouring Venezuela ended “successfully” on December 12, both teams said, although a ceasefire was not reached. Another round of talks is due to take place in Mexico, but a date has yet to be set.
On Wednesday, Prada called on the ELN to declare a verifiable truce when the issue is discussed in those upcoming negotiations.
“Only when we have the conditions of the protocols totally agreed can we lift the suspension,” said the minister, adding in the meantime that the military and police may continue their offensive against the rebels.
Prada said ceasefires remained in force with the other four groups: FARC dissidents known as the Estado Mayor Central and Segunda Marquetalia, the Clan del Golfo and the Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada.
The ELN has about 3,500 fighters across Colombia, according to official estimates.