Cease-fire with Colombia's ELN rebels expires, talks continue

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A ceasefire between Colombia's Marxist ELN rebels and the government expired at midnight on Tuesday, ahead of the start of a new round of talks that is expected to renew the pact. The National Liberation Army (ELN) and the government have been in peace talks in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, since the beginning of last year in a bid to end more than 53 years of fighting.

Ecuador hosted the fifth round of talks between the Colombian government and the left-wing rebels.

"One of our top goals now is to maintain and extend the bilateral ceasefire. Advantageously, there is the decision and political will from both sides," Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa told journalists, as reported by DPA.

The group's first-ever ceasefire, which began in October, ended without being extended as logistical problems prevented the two sides from meeting at the scheduled time on Monday, the government said.

The ELN has said it is not keen on extending the truce under original terms and wants a new deal drawn up. Center-right President Juan Manuel Santos has not said he would launch an immediate offensive against the group now that the ceasefire has ended.

During the ceasefire, reached on Sept. 4, the insurgent group promised to suspend hostage taking, attacks on roads and oil installations, the use of landmines and the recruitment of minors. In turn, the government agreed to improve protection for community leaders and conditions for about 450 jailed rebels.

A pact with the ELN would close the last chapter of a half-century conflict in the South American nation, following a deal struck by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Santos in November 2016 with the much larger FARC insurgents.

The ELN recently acknowledged the murder of an indigenous governor, for which it has asked the forgiveness of the Colombian people. In turn, the rebels accused the security forces of killing seven coca farmers, and of military operations carried out in areas of ELN influence. However, there were no reports of direct confrontations between the army and the rebels, which is unprecedented in the history of Colombia's conflict.

The group, which has an estimated 1,500 fighters, is the South American country's last active guerrilla group after the much bigger FARC signed a peace deal with the government in November 2016.

The agreement followed more than five decades of conflict involving leftist rebel movements, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups, during which about 260,000 people were killed and 7 million displaced. ELN refused to join a peace process that President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC staged in Cuba between 2012 and 2016. It launched separate talks with the government in February and later agreed to its first ceasefire since it was founded in 1964. The truce first entered force on October 1.

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