Colombia's smaller rebel group denies it's near defeat

The smaller of Colombia's two rebel groups on Sunday denied claims that a government offensive had left it on the verge of defeat, insisting that its military and political infrastructure remained intact and that it was ready to fight until victory.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordered Galan released from jail in September for three months in the hopes that once on the outside he could persuade the guerrilla group to begin peace talks. Galan had been in prison since 1994 after being sentenced to 30 years for rebellion, terrorism and kidnapping for ransom.

But Galan has made little progress since his release, with the government insisting that the ELN declare a cease-fire and stop kidnapping as preconditions for any talks, both of which the ELN high command has rejected.

In Sunday's statement, the ELN made no new offer to start negotiations but said it had "entrusted its maximum command to open a peace dialogue with the government whenever it feels the time is right." The group insisted that any future peace talks would need to address what it said was the underlying social and humanitarian crisis in Colombia that forced the rebels to take up arms 40 years ago.

The ELN's defiant remarks came after government officials and analysts have been saying that the group is reeling from a 3-year-old military offensive ordered by Uribe and that mass desertions have reduced its ranks to fewer than 3,500 fighters.

The ELN, along with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been battling to topple the government and establish a Marxist-style state since 1964, in a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 people every year. The FARC has shunned peace negotiations.

Unlike the FARC, the ELN is believed to have largely stayed out of the lucrative illicit drugs trade, leaving it short of funds, AP reports.

A. A.