Nine Killed as Colombia Guerrillas Clash Despite Peace Talks

Nine people were killed in fighting between two Colombian guerrilla groups, an official said Monday, even as progress was reported in talks seeking to end decades of armed conflict in the South American nation.

Another five people, including a teenage girl from an Indigenous community, were injured in the clashes between dissidents of the now-disarmed FARC guerrilla group and the National Liberation Army (ELN), according to the governor of the eastern Arauca department.

Governor Wilinton Rodriguez did not say if the dead and injured were fighters or civilians.

The ELN — Colombia’s last recognized guerrilla group, on Monday concluded a fourth round of negotiations with the government in neighboring Venezuela, announcing agreement on humanitarian aid for conflict-hit areas.

But shortly after the talks ended, ELN fighters were reported to have been engaged in battles with members of the dissident so-called Central General Staff (EMC) in the municipality of Puerto Rondon near the Venezuela border since the weekend.

Talks with the ELN form part of leftist President Gustavo Petro‘s stated quest for “total peace” in Colombia, which also envisions negotiations with FARC dissidents.

The country has seen more than five decades of conflict between the government on one side, and leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and other criminal groups on the other.

The Arauca department, a hub for the trafficking of cocaine and illegally mined minerals due to a paucity of security forces, has been the scene of repeated violent confrontations.

‘Peace Desired by All’

In Caracas, the government and the ELN said they had identified “critical zones” to benefit from humanitarian relief.

“We have reached new agreements that move us closer to the peace desired by all,” government negotiator Otty Patino said.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro welcomed the progress, calling it a “successful, beneficial day of peace for Colombia” during his weekly television program.

“Colombia’s peace is Venezuela’s peace,” he added.

For his part, ELN leader Pablo Beltran said the identified areas for humanitarian relief have suffered “attacks against communities” caught up in the fighting.

It was not immediately clear who will be providing the humanitarian aid.

The so-called Caracas agreement identifies two communities — Bajo Calima and San Juan — in the eastern Cauca Valley as areas to receive urgent attention.

Others will be added later.

Under the plan, the zones will benefit from “humanitarian actions” and “social development projects,” according to the text.

It added that in the coming weeks, “delegations will travel to the territories” to start identifying projects.

The ELN started as a leftist ideological movement in 1964 before turning to crime, focusing on kidnapping, extortion, violent attacks, and drug trafficking in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela.

With some 5,800 combatants, the group is primarily active in the Pacific region and along the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Venezuela.

Official data shows the ELN has a presence in more than 200 municipalities where fighting has displaced communities caught up in the violence.

At the end of May, some 1,500 people, mainly from Indigenous communities, had to flee their territory in western Choco due to fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan, the country’s biggest drug gang.

The ELN became the oldest armed group in the Americas after the disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombiaunder a 2016 peace agreement.

The ELN has taken part in failed negotiations with Colombia’s last five governments.

In the last talks with Petro’s government, held in Cuba, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire that entered into force in August.

Another round of negotiations, for which a date has yet to be set, will take place in Mexico.

The EMC, for its part, has about 3,500 armed fighters.

On Saturday, the government and EMC said they would reactivate a ceasefire that has been suspended since May, but without specifying when this would come into force.

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