QUITO, Ecuador – Colombia's government and the nation's second-largest rebel group formally started peace talks Tuesday in neighboring Ecuador, seeking to follow up on the peace accord already reached with the biggest rebel movement.
The National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, and government had held exploratory talks for more than three years before getting the formal negotiations started in Quito.
The start of talks originally was announced last March as the government's accord with the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to end a half century of hostilities was nearing completion. But negotiations with the ELN stalled as the rebels refused to meet President Juan Manuel Santos' demand that it free a prominent politician from captivity.
The release last week of former congressman Odin Sanchez removed that final obstacle to the start of negotiations, which are not expected to produce immediate results. The government's talks with the FARC stretched from November 2012 to September 2016.
"The time of politics with weapons must end in Colombia," the government's chief negotiator, Juan Camilo Restrepo, said at the inauguration ceremony for the talks with the ELN. "Every unnecessary delay in the search for peace means the sacrifice of lives and it is time lost to lay the foundations of reconciliation."
The rebel group's chief negotiator, Pablo Beltran, said that "we all have to change."
"We are willing to take responsibility for the events that occurred during the conflict, and we expect the other side to do the same," Beltran said in a tough speech that referred to Colombia's government as a "regime."
The ELN has about 1,500 active fighters, according to official figures. More than five decades of conflict in Colombia involving the two rebel movements, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups have resulted in more than 260,000 deaths, the disappearance of tens of thousands and the displacement of 6 million people.