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Colombia ELN Rebels May Call Unilateral Ceasefire for Pope's Visit

FILE - Pablo Beltran, representative of the delegation of National Liberation Army (ELN), attends a news conference during peace talks between the government of Colombia and the ELN guerrilla in Quito, Ecuador, June 30, 2017.

Colombia's Marxist ELN rebels may declare a temporary unilateral ceasefire for Pope Francis' visit next month if it fails to reach agreement with the government on a bilateral truce, a guerrilla leader said late on Wednesday.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) and President Juan Manuel Santos's government are negotiating a peace deal in Ecuador that may allow the two sides to halt hostilities while the pope is visiting Colombia, the guerrilla leader said, but less than a month before he arrives no deal is in sight.

"We're going to make all the necessary effort so that the ceasefire is bilateral, but if it's not achievable we will consider the possibility of making it unilateral," Pablo Beltran, the ELN's chief negotiator, told Reuters in a phone interview from Quito.

"His holiness Francis is a pope who has returned the church to think in terms of the impoverished and excluded majorities.

He is a progressive pope and anything we Colombians can do to receive him is a gesture for the support he gives to the peace process," he said.

The government and the ELN, the second-largest insurgent group, began formal peace negotiations in February after more than three years of secret talks on an agenda and logistics.

Santos has demanded that the ELN stop kidnappings, hostilities against civilians and attacks on oil infrastructure to move toward a bilateral ceasefire, but the group says the attacks are defensive and a reaction to military offensives against its fighters.

The ELN has about 2,000 combatants and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. It was inspired by the Cuban revolution with the support of radical Catholic priests and emerged in 1964.

Beltran also said the ELN has moved into areas once occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed a peace deal with the government late last year, ending its part in a half-century conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.

Many former FARC areas are being overrun with right-wing paramilitary groups and so the ELN is protecting the civilian population, Beltran said.

It will be tough to conclude peace negotiations before Santos leaves office next year, so talks must progress firmly so that the next administration feels pressured to continue with the process, he said.