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Colombia begins peace talks with ELN rebels to end 52-year war
BOGOTA/QUITO (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist ELN rebels began official peace talks with the government on Tuesday in a bid to end their part in a five-decade conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, damaged the economy and left millions displaced.
The National Liberation Army (ELN), the nation's second-biggest rebel group, hopes to clinch an agreement similar to that negotiated last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which allows the rebels to form a political party in exchange for laying down their arms.
The 2,000-strong ELN, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, has extorted, bombed oil and electricity infrastructure and kidnapped hundreds of people over its 52 years to raise funds for the war and pressure the government.
Negotiations, hosted by Ecuador, were delayed from November pending the release of a politician the group held hostage for nearly 10 months.
"Fortunately today in Colombia we are trying to develop a political solution to the conflict," said ELN negotiator Pablo Beltran at the launch of talks outside Quito.
While the talks are independent from those conducted with the FARC, the agenda will cover similar issues, like political participation, disarmament and compensation for victims.
The government's chief negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo said the two sides will remain "loyal" to the agenda and negotiate as quickly as possible.
"Peace is for all Colombians; it's peace for the region and a ray of hope for humanity. New generations, the victims of the conflict and the whole world are waiting for us to be wise and big enough to overcome this futile war," Restrepo said.
The government and the FARC signed a revised peace accord in late 2016 after four years of tricky negotiations and a failed referendum on the original deal.
President Juan Manuel Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the FARC conflict, but has been criticized for making a deal the opposition says is too lenient on the rebels.
The ELN, founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba's 1959 revolution, has been in on-and-off preliminary talks with the government since 2014.
More than 220,000 people have been killed in Colombia's conflict.
Peace with the two rebel groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in a country also ravaged by drug trafficking, but could allow economic development in once off-limits areas and shift more resources to fight growing criminal gangs.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and James Dalgleish)
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