Friday, December 16, 2005

Rebel: Talks Won't Bring Immediate Peace

Rebel: Talks Won't Bring Immediate Peace By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer = Fri Dec 16, 2005

HAVANA - The commander of Colombia's second largest rebel group warned that Cuban-hosted peace talks starting Friday will not bring an immediate end to its 41-year conflict with the government.

But Antonio Garcia of the National Liberation Army said Thursday he was hopeful of finding solutions in the government's first formal negotiations with the insurgents.

"Peace is not a moment, it's not an act," Garcia, the ELN's military commander, told reporters. "It's a process."

"What we are going to try and do is open a door," he said.

Representing the Colombian government at the talks will be peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo and Julio Londono, Colombian ambassador to Cuba and a former foreign minister.

Restrepo's office said the meetings could last 10 days. Some of the encounters were being held at El Laguito, a restricted government-operated district of lakes and rolling green hills on the western edge of the Cuban capital.

Colombian Sen. Carlos Gaviria, assisting in the talks, said he'd be happy if the parties merely agreed to a date for the next meeting.

Several informal talks since 1998 between the Colombian government and the ELN have failed. Earlier this year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Garcia of frustrating peace efforts.

Cuba hosted Colombia's last talks with the ELN in 2002. Then-President Andres Pastrana pulled out of negotiations, saying the ELN was not interested in peace. Facilitators from Spain, Norway and Switzerland and the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez were to assist this year's discussions. Colombian peace activists, politicians and university professors said getting the two sides at the table was a major accomplishment.

More than 3,000 Colombians are killed every year in a triangular conflict among government troops, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters.

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. The ELN, whose formation was inspired by the Cuban revolution, has been battered by a three-year government offensive, and the rebel force has dwindled to fewer than 3,500 fighters.

The Colombian president already has brokered a peace deal with the main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. More than half of that group's 20,000 fighters have demobilized and the rest are expected to disarm in the coming months.

Cuba played down its role in the talks.

"What we are doing is simply facilitating, to help dialogue move along," Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon said Tuesday. "But what happens here is strictly a Colombian issue."

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