QUITO – The ELN guerrilla group’s chief negotiator in its peace process with the Colombian government on Wednesday urged President Juan Manuel Santos to reconsider his decision to recall his administration’s delegates prior to a scheduled fifth round of talks in the Ecuadorian capital.
“We regret that they (the Colombian government’s delegation) made this decision not to arrive at this fifth-round gathering,” Pablo Beltran said in a press conference, adding that the ELN’s delegates had been waiting in Quito for several days.
Santos, who accused the ELN guerrilla group of resuming terrorist actions following the expiration of a bilateral cease-fire, on Wednesday took the retaliatory step of ordering government peace negotiators to return home from Ecuador.
In his statement, Santos denounced a pair of attacks by the guerrilla group Wednesday morning on oil infrastructure.
One that targeted a well in the central-eastern province of Casanare forced state oil company Ecopetrol to activate a contingency plan to prevent the risk of an oil spill in the Charte River, while the other occurred in the neighboring province of Arauca and affected the major Caño Limon-Coveñas crude pipeline.
“Given this situation, I talked with the head of the government’s delegation in Quito, (former Vice President) Gustavo Bell, so they return immediately to evaluate the future of the process,” Santos said in a statement at the Nariño presidential palace in Bogota.
But Beltran told reporters that during the cease-fire, which began on Oct. 1 and ended Tuesday, the two sides agreed not to allow any potential incident to damage the truce or the talks.
“So we’re adhering to that: that the talks should be maintained and that no incident should cause them to be interrupted, and we’re calling on them to reconsider their withdrawal from the (negotiating) table,” the rebel’s top negotiator said.
The ELN made a greater effort to ensure the success of the cease-fire than the government did, according to Beltran, who said the rebels had expected an improved humanitarian environment but that instead the trend of persecuting, threatening and killing community leaders was exacerbated.
“The war on social protest intensified. So for us ... the basic objective, which was humanitarian relief” was not close to being achieved, Beltran said, adding that the ELN intends to evaluate and improve this situation in a new cease-fire.
He added that the ELN hoped to see interest on the government’s part in overcoming this setback in the talks but that the rebel negotiators would have to return to Colombia if they do not receive a “positive response.”
“The incidents that happened today in eastern Colombia occurred amid the country’s complex conflict situation. But ... they should not alter the course of talks aimed at achieving a political solution to the conflict,” the ELN said.
Talks between the government and the ELN aimed at bringing an end to a decades-old conflict began in February of last year.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), formerly the Andean nation’s largest insurgency, last year completed the handover of its weapons to the United Nations under the terms of a November 2016 peace accord with the Santos government.
Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for ending the decades-long conflict with the FARC.