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Colombia announces formal peace talks with ELN rebels

Colombia and leftist ELN rebels have announced formal peace talks, in a move that could end a five-decade conflict. The government is also making progress in talks with FARC, the largest rebel movement.

The Colombian government and the country's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will start formal peace talks, the two sides announced in the Venezuelan capital Caracus on Wednesday.

The government and ELN have been conducting preliminary talks for nearly two years to launch formal negotiations, which are now set to begin in Ecuador.

The two sides "have agreed to set up public negotiations... in order to sign a final accord to end the armed conflict and agree on changes in search of peace and equity," Colombian government negotiator Frank Pearl and ELN commander Antonio Garcia said in a statement.

Six countries - Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador - will act as guarantors behind the talks.

Building on FARC talks

The announcement comes as President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his presidency on

ending a five-decade conflict

with the country's largest leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Those talks have progressed with Cuban mediation for nearly three years, but

failed to reach a self-imposed late-March deadline

over final sticking issues, including disarmament. Still,

peace talks have overcome many tough issues

such as land reform and victim compensation, reconciliation and political participation.

Talks with the 2,000 strong ELN are separate from those with FARC, but some of the ELN's grievances have been covered through the FARC peace process. This means that a peace process with the ELN could benefit from the groundwork already built through the FARC negotiations.

Santos wrote on Twitter that talks with the ELN bring Colombia one step closer to ending the conflict.

"With hope, we are advancing on a definitive end to the conflict in Colombia. Today more than ever we must be united for peace to become a reality," Santos wrote.

Inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959, the Marxist-Leninist ELN was established in 1964, the same year as FARC. It was founded by a Catholic priest and other leftists to fight gross inequality and the distribution of the country's resources.

The ELN operates primarily in eastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela, carrying out extortion, kidnapping and attacks on oil pipelines.

Colombia's multi-sided conflict involving the government, leftist guerillas, conservative paramilitaries and gangs has left more than 260,000 people dead, displaced 6.6 million people and left 45,000 missing.

cw/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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