Colombian rebel group calls temporary ceasefire over pandemic

Hector Velasco
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A Colombian soldier guards a checkpoint in rural Jamundi, Valle del Cauca, on February 14, after the ELN threatened a three-day "armed strike" against the government

Colombia's last recognized leftist guerrilla group, the ELN, has announced a month-long ceasefire in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a statement released Monday said.

The rebels said they would unilaterally suspend military action from April 1 "as a humanitarian gesture."

The statement was disseminated by a group of Colombian senators who are seeking to establish a peace process with the group.

The National Liberation Army, the group's formal name, noted a recent appeal by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a halt to conflicts worldwide as nations grapple with the pandemic, and said that Colombian organizations had made similar requests.

Guterres welcomed the move and hoped the ceasefire "can bring in measures of relief to communities and vulnerable groups in conflict affected regions in Colombia, and help the authorities to focus on fighting the pandemic."

He called on the other armed groups operating in Colombia "to do likewise"

Ivan Cepeda, a leftist senator who was among those who made public the rebel statement, said the ELN reserved the right to defend itself against attacks by government forces.

He said it would also respond similarly to drug trafficking groups with whom it vies for control in some areas.

"We call on the government of (President Ivan) Duque to order its troops to remain in barracks," the statement said, and urged him to reactivate contacts with its representatives in Havana to negotiate a bilateral truce.

- 'Not far enough' -

But the government's High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, said the guerrillas' announcement did not go far enough.

"We have just learned of the ELN's decision to cease fire for a month. I believe that the country hopes for much more than that. We face a huge challenge, thousands of people can die," Ceballos said in a radio interview.

Colombia had 798 confirmed cases of the virus as of Monday, including 12 deaths.

The ELN, which is said to operate in about 10 percent of the country, has some 2,300 combatants and an extensive network of supporters in urban centers.

It is the last formal guerrilla group left in the country after the government reached a peace agreement with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016. Some former FARC rebels have since taken up arms again, however.

Peace negotiations began with the ELN the following year, first in the Ecuadoran capital Quito, and later in Havana.

But Duque, a conservative who succeeded Juan Manuel Santos -- who delivered the FARC peace deal and opened discussions with the ELN -- ended the talks after a January 2019 car bomb attack on a Bogota police academy that killed 21 recruits.

Duque has said he would only reopen talks if the ELN releases all its hostages and ceases its "criminal activity."

Bogota has repeatedly accused neighboring Venezuela's leftist regime under Nicolas Maduro of harboring the guerrillas and condoning drug trafficking inside its border. Caracas denies the accusations.

In its statement, the ELN criticized the government's handling of the health crisis and said the coronavirus had been artificially created and spread by the United States.