Colombian ceasefire signing delayed by a day

The Colombian government and ELN guerrilla group on Thursday postponed by a day the anticipated signing of a temporary ceasefire to conclude a third round of peace talks in Havana. 

“We have asked one day more” in order to “finalize details,” negotiators for both sides said in a joint statement just hours before the signing ceremony was due to take place.

President Gustavo Petro later tweeted that he would be in Havana Friday to oversee the closing day of negotiations that started in the Cuban capital on May 2 in a fresh bid to end decades of conflict in the South American country.

Petro had earlier announced he would “sign a document that could mean the beginning… of an era of peace in this country.”

Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez told Colombian media he had discussed “the terms of a ceasefire” with government colleagues, adding “we hope it can be signed.”

On Thursday, Colombian peace commissioner Danilo Rueda insisted in a statement that a ceasefire would be signed with the ELN.

He said there was an “atmosphere of absolute trust and security” between the parties, adding this would be “the first time that the ELN… agrees to a bilateral cessation (of fighting) for six months.”

Monitoring and verification mechanisms will be put in place in the coming days and weeks, added Rueda.

– ‘Total peace’ –

The proposed signing comes just days after Colombia’s top prosecutor scrapped an arrest warrant for ELN guerrilla leader Antonio Garcia, who is leading talks with the government.

Founded in 1964, the ELN had more than 5,800 combatants in 2022, according to authorities. It has taken part in failed negotiations with Colombia’s last five governments.

The group is primarily active in the Pacific region and along the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Venezuela.

Dialogue with the ELN started in 2018 under then president Juan Manuel Santos, who signed a peace treaty two years earlier with the larger Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group. It subsequently disarmed and transformed itself into a political party.

But talks with the ELN were called off in 2019 by conservative then president Ivan Duque following a car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogota that left 22 people dead.

Duque had arrest warrants issued for ELN negotiators and asked Cuba to extradite them, which Havana refused. This caused then US-president Donald Trump to add Cuba to a list of countries deemed as sponsors of terrorism.

Former guerrilla Petro, who last August became Colombia’s first-ever leftist leader, reached out to the ELN shortly after coming to power in pursuit of his “total peace” policy.

The two sides resumed formal peace talks in Venezuela in November for the first time since 2019. A second round was held in Mexico.

The ELN had refuted a ceasefire announcement made by Petro on New Year’s Eve, and an ELN ambush of a military convoy in March, which left nine soldiers dead, had cast doubt over the future of the talks.

Colombia has continued to be gripped by violence despite the 2016 peace deal, as fighting continues over territory and resources between dissident FARC guerrillas, the ELN, paramilitary forces and drug cartels.