BOGOTA Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has begun exploratory peace talks with leftist ELN rebels, he said on Tuesday, just days before voters go to the polls in one of the tightest presidential election battles in decades.
The center-right government said it started discussing an agenda early in the year to begin official negotiations to end a half century war with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The government has been in peace talks with the ELN's larger counterpart, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), since November 2012 to end a conflict that has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions.
The announcement, on the eve of a run-off presidential vote on Sunday, may be enough to sway undecided Colombians. Santos faces right-wing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in an election that has split the nation and become a referendum on how to bring about peace.
"We express to Colombia and the international community the reciprocal will to continue this exploratory phase which will allow us to agree on an agenda and establish talks to reach a final agreement," the government and ELN said in a joint statement posted on the president's website.
"The delegations agreed that the agenda will include points on victims and social participation."
Zuluaga has bitterly opposed the talks with the FARC and is likely to object to negotiations with the ELN. He has said he would impose conditions like jail terms and a ban on political participation.
Critics say talks would collapse if Zuluaga wins.
PROMISE OF PEACE
Negotiations with the ELN would be held under the same conditions as with the FARC, Santos told reporters. There will be no ceasefire and discussions will be carried out overseas. Official talks will not go ahead unless there is complete accord at the exploratory stage.
Santos said the decision to reveal the talks came as a deal with the FARC "entered its final stage."
"An integral peace process that includes the FARC and the ELN is the best guarantee for the victims and for the country that this conflict will end forever and never be repeated," he said. (For more on the election, see)
Colombia's leftist political parties have thrown support behind Santos in a bid to preserve the peace process. Leftist lawmaker Ivan Cepeda, who helped facilitate the ELN talks, said neither the FARC nor the ELN will continue peace talks if Zuluaga wins.
"This shows that Santos, with whom we have profound differences, is doing something to bring about peace," Cepeda told Reuters. "Never has peace in Colombia advanced so much."
Some analysts have said it is important to bring the ELN into the peace process to prevent it becoming a refuge for FARC fighters unwilling to demobilize if peace is achieved.
The ELN has battled a dozen governments since it was founded in 1964 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
(Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by James Dalgleish and Cynthia Osterman)