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Colombia to Hold Peace Talks With Second-Largest Rebel Group

Frank Pearl, left, head of Colombia's peace negotiation team, hands documents to Antonio Garcia, chief negotiator of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, during a signing agreement to start peace talks, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 30, 2016.

Colombia has agreed to hold formal peace talks with the country's second-largest rebel group, moving closer to ending a five-decade-long civil war.

Negotiations between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, will take place in Ecuador, according to a joint statement issued Wednesday.

The two sides had already been holding exploratory peace talks. But Wednesday's announcement formalized those discussions and brought the leftist ELN into a wider peace process.

For three years, Colombia and another rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been holding peace talks in Havana, Cuba.

Colombia and the Marxist FARC group had intended to reach a peace agreement by March 23 but missed that deadline. The FARC has observed a cease-fire since last year, but the ELN has continued attacks.

Leftist rebels have been fighting a guerrilla war to try to topple Colombian governments since 1964, killing more than 220,000 people. They have used drug trafficking and kidnappings for ransom to fund their war.

Colombia's rebel movement has been weakened in recent years, and right-wing paramilitary forces formed to counter leftist fighters have been disbanded.