Colombia peace commissioner in Cuba to meet ELN rebels


By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Colombia's new high peace commissioner has traveled to Cuba to meet representatives of the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and examine a possible restart to peace talks, President Gustavo Petro said on Thursday.

Petro, who took office on Sunday and is a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, has promised to establish "total peace" in Colombia. The commissioner is Danilo Rueda, who was director of a non-governmental organization working to expose human rights violations by Colombian state security forces and paramilitary groups.

"The work of Danilo now is to sound out, given the huge extent of violence in Colombia, whether the possibility of peace processes, of surrender to justice in many cases, of restarting talks, of bilateral ceasefires which could substantially reduce violence in Colombia, are true," Petro told journalists.

Rueda went to Havana with Senator Ivan Cepeda, a member of Petro's coalition and president of the chamber's peace commission, three government and congressional sources said.

Representatives of the ELN, which was founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, have remained in Cuba since previous talks, begun under the government of Juan Manuel Santos, were called off in 2019.

The group, which is seen as radical and not centrally-controlled, said after Petro's election victory that it was willing to talk to the new administration.

Petro has said discussions could begin where the Santos' administration left off and that he would recognize the protocols agreed with help from guarantors Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Brazil.

Talks between the ELN and the Santos government began in Ecuador, later moving to Cuba, but were called off by Santos' successor Ivan Duque because the ELN refused to halt hostilities and killed 22 police cadets in a Bogota bomb attack.

Previous attempts at negotiations with the ELN, which has some 2,400 combatants and is accused of financing itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnapping, have not advanced partly because of dissent within its ranks.

Much of the ELN leadership in Cuba is older than many of its members and it is unclear how much sway they hold over units operating deep in Colombia's countryside.

Petro has also promised to fully implement a 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels and seek de-arming of crime gangs in exchange for reduced sentences and information about drug trafficking.

Colombia's conflict, which has run for nearly six decades, killed 450,000 people between 1985 and 2018.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Grant McCool)

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