Colombia to begin peace talks in Cuba with rebels

Colombia's second-largest rebel group will begin preliminary peace talks with the Colombian government this week in Cuba, exploring prospects for dialogue after decades of bloodshed. Leaders of the leftist National Liberation Army, or ELN, were expected to travel Monday to Havana, where formal talks will begin Friday after several days of preparatory meetings, Colombia's peace commission said. "We're arriving at the table with an open agenda," ELN leader Francisco Galan told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. "There are no subjects off-limits, nor conditions of any sort." The talks will mark the first formal negotiations that President Alvaro Uribe's government has held with rebels.

The ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been battling since 1964 to topple Colombia's government and establish a Marxist-style state. The 12,000-strong FARC has shunned peace talks.

Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo's office said the preparatory meetings and formal talks could last 10 days. ELN representatives and facilitators from Spain, Switzerland and Norway are to meet from Tuesday to Thursday, the office said.

Colombia last held peace talks with the ELN in 2002 under then-President Andres Pastrana. Those talks, also held in Cuba, ended when Pastrana pulled out of the negotiations, saying the ELN was not interested in peace.

More than 3,000 people are killed every year in Colombia's triangular conflict between government troops, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters.

Uribe has already brokered a peace deal with the main right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. More than half of that group's 20,000 fighters have demobilized, and the rest are expected to disarm in the coming months. Unlike the FARC and the AUC, the ELN is believed to have largely stayed out of the drug trade, leaving it short of funds. Analysts have said the ELN is struggling through a three-year-old military offensive and suffering desertions that have reduced its ranks to fewer than 3,500 fighters.

Galan, the ELN's lead spokesman, was temporarily released from prison in September in hopes he could help launch peace talks. He has served 13 years of a 30-year sentence for rebellion, terrorism and kidnapping.

The ELN has consistently rejected government demands it declare a cease-fire and stop kidnapping as a precondition for talks. The group, which claims its ideological roots in Cuba's socialist system, published a statement on its Web site Thursday saying the talks "should deal with the reality of the country: the problems of social injustice and poverty, state terrorism, the lack of democracy,” reports the AP. I.L.

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