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Colombia resumes talks with powerful ELN guerrilla group

Photo: Yuri Cortez / AFP

| By AFP |

Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the last recognized rebel group in the country, resumed formal peace talks in Venezuela Monday for the first time since they were suspended in 2019.

The talks are a push by President Gustavo Petro, who in August became Colombia’s first-ever leftist leader, and has vowed a less bellicose approach to ending violence wrought by armed groups, including leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers.

In their first meeting, the parties agreed to “resume the dialogue process with full political and ethical will,” according to a joint statement.

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They added that the talks aim to “build peace” and make “tangible, urgent, and necessary” changes, highlighting the need for “permanent compromises.”

The first round of talks will last 20 days.

Colombia has suffered more than half a century of armed conflict between the state and various groups of left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

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

It has around 2,500 members, about 700 more than it did when negotiations were last broken off. The group is primarily active in the Pacific region and along the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Venezuela.

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Dialogue with the group started in 2016 under ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, who signed a peace treaty with the larger Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group that subsequently abandoned its weapons and created a political party.

But the talks with the ELN were called off in 2019 by conservative former president Ivan Duque following a car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogota that left 22 people dead.

Petro — himself a former guerrilla — reached out to the ELN shortly after coming to power, as part of his “total peace” policy.

The ELN peace talks delegation spent four years based in Cuba, as they had been barred from returning to Colombia by the previous government.

They traveled to Venezuela last month, where the fresh round of talks was announced.

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Colombian Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez warned that the negotiations do not imply a “suspension of operations” against the ELN. 

“If there is an encounter with someone who has an arrest warrant, they must be captured… There is no ceasefire,” he said.

‘We all have to change’

Colombian peace commissioner Ivan Danilo Rueda hailed a “historic moment” for the country after the meeting.

“We are here honoring life, the lives of so many beings who are no longer here,” Rueda said. “Murdered, disappeared.”

ELN delegate Pablo Beltran said he hoped the dialogue would be “an instrument of change… and we hope we won’t fail.”

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“In Colombia, we all have to change” and “overcome the dynamic of death,” he said.

Caracas is hosting the first meeting, and the talks will rotate between the other guarantors Cuba and Norway.

A statement from the guarantor nations said Monday’s meeting was “an important step to achieve peace.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres’s special envoy in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, called on “the parties and Colombian society to take advantage of this historic opportunity.”

“I reiterate the support of the Secretary General @antonioguterres to this process,” he wrote on Twitter.

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro hailed the process as “a message of hope for a peaceful Latin America and Caribbean,” at a rally in the capital.

International

Food prices send hunger soaring in Latin America: UN agencies

Photo: AP News

| By AFP |

Rising food prices in Latin America and the Caribbean caused the number of people going hungry in the region to rise by more than 13 million between 2019 and 2021, a United Nations report said Tuesday.

The report by three UN agencies said the region was particularly vulnerable to the global food crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine due to a high reliance on wheat, maize and fertilizer imports.

“The number of people in the region suffering from hunger increased by 13.2 million to 56.5 million,” read the report, released at a press conference in Santiago, Chile.

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In addition, moderate or severe food insecurity affected 267.7 million people — 40.6 percent of the region’s population — in 2021. 

This is “far above the world average” of 29.3 percent, said the report.

“The rise in food inflation and extreme poverty is one of the factors behind the increase in food insecurity and hunger,” said the report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

According to the FAO, food insecurity refers to a lack of regular access to healthy and nutritious food.

“The heavy reliance on imported fertilizers, and fluctuating food prices, have an unavoidable negative impact on livelihoods — mainly of the rural population — and access to healthy food,” said Mario Lubetkin, FAO Assistant Director-General.

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International

Colombia landslide kills 34

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

Heavy rains in northwest Colombia sent a wall of earth crashing onto a winding road, swallowing up a bus and other vehicles and killing 34 people, emergency services said Monday.

The landslide Sunday evening prompted a large rescue effort, with dozens of people in hard hats using backhoes and excavators to dig through the earth looking for victims.

The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management said the fatalities included eight minors and that nine other people were injured in the disaster in the remote town of Pueblo Rico.

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The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, and traveled 270 kilometers (170 miles) before being hit by the landslide as it passed through the Andes mountain region, civil defense officials said.

Colombian media reported that a child had survived and was pulled from the arms of its mother, who did not make it.

One survivor said the bus driver had at first managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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The country has declared a national disaster over the rains linked to the exceptionally long La Nina weather phenomenon, which cools surface temperatures and is currently causing drought and flooding around the globe.

Today, the landslide “puts this town in mourning, tomorrow it could be in another area, because we really have many unstable areas in the country, and the rainy season has not ended,” said Javier Pava of the UNGRD.

The UN’s World Meteorological Organization said last week the La Nina conditions could last until February or March 2023.

In Colombia, the phenomenon has also caused crop damage, compromising food supplies and leading to soaring prices.

In July, three children were killed in northwestern Colombia when a landslide buried a rural school. In February, 14 people died in a mudslide triggered by heavy rains in central-western Risaralda province.

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International

At least 27 killed in Colombia landslide: president

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

At least 27 people were killed when a landslide engulfed a road in northwest Colombia, trapping people in a bus and other vehicles, said President Gustavo Petro on Monday.

“It is with sadness that I must announce that, so far, 27 people, including three minors, have lost their lives in the tragedy” that struck on Sunday in a remote area of the Pueblo Rico municipality, Petro wrote on Twitter.

On Sunday evening, the president reported three dead, as dozens of rescue workers searched for survivors.

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One survivor said the driver of the bus managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, civil defense officials said.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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