May 22, 2007 / 10:24 PM / 12 years ago

Colombia rebels target US trade pact at peace talks

HAVANA, May 22 (Reuters) - Colombia’s second largest guerrilla movement said on Tuesday it would agree to a cease-fire if the government dropped a free-trade pact signed in November with the United States.

Setting new conditions for peace, the National Liberation Army (ELN) also demanded a freeze of all privatization of state companies, including the Cartagena oil refinery and 20 percent of the state oil company ECOPETROL.

A cease-fire is the major stumbling block in the peace talks, which began 17 months ago in Havana in a bid to end the Cuban-inspired guerrilla insurgency begun in 1964 by radical students and Catholic priests.

The 5,000-strong ELN said it was ready to stop its armed attacks, kidnappings and sabotage activities if the Colombian government suspended what it called unpopular measures such as free trade with the United States.

"It is necessary to freeze the approval of the FTA because it hurts the sovereignty and future of our nation, and the interests of a majority of Colombians," the ELN said in a statement issued in Havana, referring to the trade agreement.

Colombia, Washington’s closest ally and largest recipient of military and counter-narcotics aid in Latin America, signed the free-trade agreement in November, but the U.S. Congress has yet to approve the deal.

Democrats in control of Congress want to see guarantees for Colombian labor leaders and clarification of unsolved murders before they back the trade pact. They also want Colombia to address U.S. concerns about alleged links between right-wing paramilitary forces and high-ranking Colombian officials.

An ELN source in Havana said the sixth round of talks that began on April 17 have brought the two sides closer, though the terms of cease-fire continue to elude negotiators.

The ELN has so far rejected a government demand that would confine the guerrillas to a demilitarized area.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has insisted the rebels hand over their weapons, declare a cease-fire and free some 500 hostages.




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