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Colombia, ELN rebels begin peace talks in Ecuador

By
Andrew V. Pestano
Colombia's chief peace negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo, right, and the chief negotiator of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group, Pablo Beltran, left, shake hands during the start of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday. Photo by Jose Jacome/EPA
Colombia's chief peace negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo, right, and the chief negotiator of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group, Pablo Beltran, left, shake hands during the start of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday. Photo by Jose Jacome/EPA

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' administration have begun peace negotiations in Ecuador.

Pablo Beltran, the ELN's chief negotiator, and Juan Camilo Restrepo, Santos' chief peace negotiator, both agreed the opportunity for a lasting peace in Colombia may not come again.

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"Colombia and the world realize that it's very unlikely that this opportunity for peace will come before us again," Restrepo said during the ceremony in Quito on Tuesday.

Restrepo said he will implement into this effort some of the lessons he learned while he negotiated for peace with the FARC rebel group.

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"We hope the ELN will understand that these are times of peace. And that it has the lucidity of not letting the train of peace go. Colombia waits for it," Restrepo said in a statement on Wednesday. "We will negotiate with seriousness and speed."

Ecuador is hosting the first round of negotiations, while Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway and Venezuela could host further talks.

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The ELN has urged Santos' administration to listen to the input of social organizations that aim to help mediate differences between the rebels and government.

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"We are convinced that a peace with social justice must count on the participation of society," the ELN said in a statement.

The ELN, like the FARC rebel group, began as a Marxist-inspired insurgency in the 1960s. It was never as large or as powerful as FARC, but like FARC, its members engaged in drug-trafficking, kidnapping and other illegal activity to fund their campaign against the government.

There are an estimated 2,500 ELN rebels living mostly in Colombia's rural, mountainous areas. More than 220,000 people have died and about 5 million have been internally displaced due to the Colombian conflict, primarily attributed to FARC, since its founding in 1964.

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