A left-wing rebel group in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), says it is not part of a ceasefire with the government announced by the president.

On New Year’s Eve, President Gustavo Petro made a bold statement on Twitter: Five of the country’s illegal armed groups had agreed to a six-month period ceasefire.

“Total peace will become a reality,” Petro wrote, following up on his promises to end the country’s decades-long armed conflict.

But on Tuesday, the ELN issued a statement refuting claims that it had agreed to the ceasefire.

“The ELN dialogue delegation has not discussed any proposal for a bilateral ceasefire with the government of Gustavo Petro,” the ELN wrote in a press release. “Therefore, such an agreement does not exist.”

The group instead called the ceasefire “a proposal that needs to be examined”.

“We have pointed out on several occasions that the ELN only complies with what has been discussed and agreed at the negotiating table in which we participate,” the press release said. “A unilateral government decision cannot be accepted as an agreement.”

The ELN made the announcement after Colombia’s last recognized rebel group peace talks resumed in November for the first time since 2018. It had become Colombia’s largest remaining illegal armed group after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) disbanded in the wake of a 2016 peace agreement with the government.

The ELN was founded in 1964 by far-left priests and grew to have 2,400 to 4,000 members. It has funded its operations through drug trafficking, illegal mining and other enticing activities, expanding into territory previously controlled by the FARC.

Both the United States and the European Union have labeled the ELN a “terrorist” organization.

Internal disagreements had prevented the ELN from returning to peace negotiations until Petro’s presidency. Petro – one former rebel fighter who turned to politics and became a senator and mayor of the capital Bogota, vowed to bring “total peace” to Colombia when he was sworn in as the country’s first leftist president in August.

Conflict has gripped the country since the 1960s, with the government, left-wing guerrilla groups and far-right paramilitary forces vying for power. The Truth Commission of Colombia estimates that more than 450,664 people have been killed in the six decades of struggle.

The ELN and government representatives met in Venezuela in November to try to end the conflict. Countries such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Cuba and Norway were also invited to participate as “guarantors”, to oversee the talks and ensure that any commitments are met.

While the resumed peace talks do not seem to have led to a ceasefire so far, both the group and the Colombian government said in a joint statement that the first round of negotiations “successfully concluded” in December.

Among the agreements reached was a pact to Embera Indigenous community to return to his country in western Colombia after being driven out by fighting. The ELN and the government also agreed on a four-point agreement, including an acknowledgment of the violence and an appeal for emergency aid to the provinces of Choco and Valle del Cauca.

A new round of peace talks will begin in Mexico this month.

After the December peace talks, the ELN shared on social media that it would unilaterally impose a temporary ceasefire from December 24 to Monday. But the ELN did say it would defend itself if attacked.

The Colombian president’s announcement on New Year’s Eve said an even wider ceasefire has come into effect from Sunday.

That ceasefire would cover not only the ELN, but also four other armed groups: the Second Marquetalia, the Central General Staff, the AGC Group, and the Sierra Nevada Self-Defense Forces.

Petro said the ceasefire would have lasted until June 30 and would have included a “national and international verification mechanism” to ensure terms were adhered to.

“This is a bold act. The bilateral ceasefire obliges the armed organizations and the state to respect it,” Petro wrote on Twitter.

Petro’s announcement was hailed as a “breakthrough” by the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the development “brings renewed hope for comprehensive peace” in 2023.

Petro’s office has not commented immediately in the wake of the ELN’s denial that the ceasefire exists, but it said the president would consult with Colombia’s high peace commissioner and officials from interior ministries and National Defense.

Pablo Beltran, one of the ELN’s chief negotiators, had said in December that he hopes a ceasefire can be reached during the upcoming negotiations in Mexico.

“Once we finalize what is planned, we will be able to discuss the bilateral ceasefire proposal,” the ELN said on Tuesday, referring to Mexico’s peace talks.



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