Sangolqui (Ecuador) (AFP) - Now that Colombia's leftist FARC rebels have laid down their weapons under a peace accord ending 50 years of war, the country has one last guerrilla group that is still active, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
It is in peace talks with the government and its chief negotiator says a temporary bilateral ceasefire is possible before Pope Francis visits Colombia in September.
In an interview with AFP at a Jesuit compound in Ecuador where the two sides have been meeting for the past four months, ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltran, 63, also said he hopes to meet with the pontiff when he visits.
AFP: The government and the ELN have said they are seeking a bilateral ceasefire before the Pope arrives.
Beltran: We are close to a temporary bilateral ceasefire. There is no set date, but we want it to be around that time, before his holiness comes. We plan to finalize the accord in July and August.
AFP: What would this agreement consist of?
Beltran: There will be a definitive ceasefire in the final agreement. But this is a different kind, one that coincides with the early stages of the negotiations. It is a ceasefire between both sides, but we are also going to reach agreements of a humanitarian nature that make life easier for the non-combatant population. We are asking that there be an end to attacks against and persecution of social, environmental and human rights leaders.
AFP: But the government says a bilateral ceasefire is contingent on the ELN's stopping kidnapping people.
Beltran: Yes. When the ceasefire is reached, offensive operations stop. Defensive ones continue. In ELN territory, we will have to capture any strangers that wander in, as a security precaution. During this time we would only stop deprivations of freedom with economic purposes. This would be like a test. If it works, we will see about extending it.
AFP: How many people is the ELN holding?
Beltran: Very few, if you compare the number of deprivations of freedom that we do with the number of killings of social leaders that there have been this year. There have already been more than 50 such killings, and the deprivations of freedom that we have carried out do not reach even 10 percent of those 50.
- Pope comes 'every 20 years'-
AFP: Do you expect to meet with Pope Francis?
Beltran: That is our expectation. The cities he is going to visit include Villavicencio (in central Colombia). In that city there is going to be a special reconciliation ceremony and we hope to be present there.
AFP: To be present or be received?
Beltran: Both. A pope comes to Colombia every 20 years and if he is coming to encourage the peace process we would like to greet His Holiness. We would ask him to accompany the search for peace in Colombia and the rest of the continent.
AFP: If an agreement is signed with the ELN, will Colombia have "complete peace," as the government has stated after the accord with the FARC?
Beltran: Point 5 of the agenda we are discussing says we are going to remove violence from politics. There are two sides to that coin. On one hand it means the rebels stop trying to take power through the use of weapons. But at the same time it means the regime must stop trying to remain in power with weapons. That is the big challenge.
AFP: The ELN has been accused of financing itself at least in part with money from drug trafficking.
Beltran: In all parts of Colombia where the ELN is present, medium- and large-scale producers pay a tax in one form or another: livestock, palm oil, coca leaves. It is one thing to charge that security tax. It is another thing altogether to get involved in drug trafficking.