Colombia launches peace talks with key rebel force ELN

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Caracas (AFP)

Colombia's government launched peace negotiations Wednesday with the country's second-biggest guerrilla group, the left-wing ELN, broadening the push to end the country's bloody half-century conflict, officials said.

The two sides "have agreed to set up public negotiations... in order to sign a final accord to end the armed conflict and agree on changes in search of peace and equity," they said in a joint statement read out by their delegates.

Colombian government negotiator Frank Pearl and ELN commander Antonio Garcia read out the statement in a joint appearance after talks in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.

They hope to bring the ELN into the peace process under way with Colombia's biggest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sealing a broad agreement to end the violence for good.

The ELN is a leftist group like the FARC but has fought as a rival to it for territory in a many-sided conflict that started as a peasant uprising in 1964.

While the FARC has observed a ceasefire since last year as its peace talks have advanced, the ELN has continued attacks.

The war between right- and left-wing guerrillas, government troops and gangs in Colombia is considered the last major armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been discussing for more than two years the possibility of launching formal negotiations with the ELN.

The government has been holding talks in Havana with the FARC for the past three years.

They had aimed to sign a peace agreement on March 23 but that deadline passed with no deal as key issues have not yet been resolved, including disarmament.