Colombia's ELN guerrilla group warns of peace talks 'crisis'

FILE PHOTO: Peace dialogues between Colombia's government and National Liberation Army, in Mexico City

BOGOTA (Reuters) -Colombian leftwing guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) on Monday said peace talks with the government were in crisis due to comments made by President Gustavo Petro.

The declaration from the ELN represents the most recent setback to the negotiations, which Petro restarted last year as part of efforts to end the rebel group's role in Colombia's almost six decades of conflict.

Petro had questioned the unity of the group's leadership and ordered Colombia's military to target illicit activity such as drug trafficking that finance illegal armed groups.

"The peace talks cannot be subject to the fluctuations in the public statements of the president," the ELN said in a statement.

"The negotiations have entered into a crisis and clarity is needed from the government, so that the path towards peace is cleared and so that we might speak in plain language to the country and the world," the statement added.

In response, the government said: "It's imperative for us to answer to (affected) communities and establish ... a cessation of hostilities between all parties in the conflict, protection measures for civilians, and the participation of civil society as key pillars."

The ELN, founded in 1964 by radical Catholic priests, has some 5,850 members, including 2,950 combatants. The government says the group finances itself through drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnapping.

Negotiations with the ELN under previous administrations faltered on the group's diffuse chain of command and dissent within its ranks.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime AcostaWriting by Oliver GriffinEditing by Marguerita Choy and Rosalba O'Brien)