By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia´s National Liberation Army (ELN) favors a bilateral ceasefire to pave the way for renewed peace talks, the leftist guerilla group´s top negotiator told Reuters in Havana on Wednesday, and said the rebels would be united upon returning to the bargaining table.
Pablo Beltran, who leads the ELN´s delgation in Cuba, said he and other delegates in Havana since talks collapsed in 2019 would return home in the coming weeks - given proper assurances of safety - and together with comrades in the jungle fine tune their strategy ahead of coming negotiations.
The soft-spoken Beltran, who fought with the ELN both in urban and rural combat in Colombia, said a previous bilateral ceasefire in 2017 was "positive" and should be "repeated."
"At this moment we are not on the offensive," he told Reuters in a leafy, quiet neighborhood just outside Havana. "Ours is a positive, constructive attitude, to signal to the government we hope to resume [talks]."
The election of leftist President Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, helped open the door to the new talks. Petro has promised to seek "total peace" by fully implementing a 2016 peace deal with the now-demobilized FARC rebels and dialoguing with crime gangs.
Skeptics, however, question whether the ELN, founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests and long seen as unpredictable and divided among several fronts, can strike a deal with government negotiators.
Beltran dismissed those concerns.
"When we agreed (to the last ceasefire in 2017), 100% of our fronts complied," he said. "No one can say, the ELN signed one thing and then failed to follow through."
On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro agreed Venezuela would serve as a guarantor at the negotiations, a key step, Beltran said, in allowing ELN negotiators in Cuba to reunite with fellow rebel leaders still operating in Colombia and along the Venezuelan border.
"We have to agree once again on our approach because it is the first time that we with a progressive government...it is unprecedented," Beltran said. "New instructions are needed."
After that, talks with the government, he said, could resume in as little as "a few weeks."
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.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Marguerita Choy)