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Colombia to relaunch peace talks with ELN rebels

Colombian officials have announced a new push to reach peace with the country's second-largest rebel group ELN. Ex-president Uribe urged the government to be tougher on FARC while trying to salvage the failed peace bid.

The state officials are set to meet the representatives of ELN in Ecuador in late October, both sides confirmed on Monday.

The Colombian ELN or National Liberation Front is estimated to have between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters, putting its force at around one-quarter of the more influential FARC.

"Peace won't slip through our fingers," President Juan Manuel Santos said after the Monday announcement. "On the contrary, it will be stronger, and now that we will advance with the ELN, it will be complete."

Earlier on Monday, ELN handed one of their hostages to the International Red Cross, marking a third such instance in the last two weeks. The group still holds at least two people, including a prominent politician Odin Sanchez who handed himself over to the group in April. In doing so, Sanchez secured the release of his brother Patrocinio Sanchez, a former governor whose health was failing after spending years in ELN captivity.

The leftist group largely raises money by extortion and kidnapping. The fate of hostages has proven to be major stumbling block since the government first opened the peace talks in 2014. According to some sources, the guerilla group is now planning on liberating all of its captives.

Kolumbien Präsident Santos (Reuters/Colombian Presidency)

President Santos adressing the nation after the ELN announcement

Uribe pushes for tougher deal

The talks with the ELN, however, took a back seat with the government's bid to end the decades-long war with FARC. Although both sides managed to sign a peace deal two weeks ago, the public narrowly rejected the accord in a shock vote several days later. The opponents of the deal claim it was too lenient to the guerilla faction.

Former president Alvaro Uribe, who led the "no" campaign, urged the government on Monday to change the deal and set harsher terms for surrendering FARC leaders.

The original deal envisioned the group handing over their weapons and confessing their crimes, and restraining the movement of more serious offenders to designated areas for the next eight years. The deal would also give the group seats in the parliament and declare immunity from traditional jail sentences. Some members would still receive unconventional punishments, like clearing landmines.

Time 'biggest enemy'

Uribe, however, wants the criminals locked up for a minimum of five years, although the place of internment could be an agricultural farm. He also called for FARC representatives to be barred from holding public office, and for thousands of militia members to help destroy cocoa crops.

In response, the current president Santos urged Uribe's camp to be realistic in mending the accord, which is almost 300-pages long and took nearly four years to negotiate.

 "We have to work with speed and promptness because our biggest enemy now is time," Santos said. "The eyes of the world are upon us and they expect the best."

dj/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters)

 

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