Colombia, ELN rebels agree to restart peace talks

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BOGOTA, Nov 19 (Reuters) Colombia's government and the country's second-largest guerrilla group, ELN, have agreed to restart peace talks after meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the rebels said in a report published today.

The participation of Chavez has breathed fresh life into attempts to broker talks with Colombia's two main rebel groups.

Authorized by Bogota, the left-wing Venezuelan leader met this month with delegates from the two groups in Caracas.

Fledging negotiations in Cuba with the ELN, the Spanish initials for the National Liberation Army, stumbled earlier this year when the two sides disagreed on a talks framework, including details of a cease-fire and rebel hostages.

''We have a meeting scheduled, possibly in the second half of December. We are going to evaluate how far we have come, the obstacles, and redesign the new steps we are going to take,'' ELN delegate Antonio Garcia told El Tiempo newspaper.

''President Chavez's facilitation ... brings a level of seriousness. This is a head of state aware of the process, willing to contribute to looking for alternatives.'' Started by priests and students as a Cuba-inspired movement in the 1960s, the ELN has been battered by President Alvaro Uribe's US-backed campaign to drive back rebels and fight the drug-trafficking fueling Colombia's four-decade insurgency.

Aided by billions of dollars in US funds, Uribe has helped reduce violence and bombings and attracted more foreign investment. But armed groups are still active in rural areas.

The ELN began its initial peace efforts in 2005 but the talks have sputtered through at least seven rounds with little concrete progress.

Chavez, a foe to Washington who has become a leading left-wing voice in Latin America, is also trying to negotiate talks to free hostages held by the country's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC.

FARC delegates have met Chavez in Caracas to discuss a deal to exchange jailed rebels for key hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt snatched in 2002 and three Americans seized in 2003 while on an anti-narcotics mission.

REUTERS RSA RN2147

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