Colombia, ELN rebels set to begin peace talks next week

FILE PHOTO: Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaks to journalists about his government's first 100 days, in Bogota

BOGOTA (Reuters) -The Colombian government and left-wing guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) are set to restart peace talks to end nearly 60 years of war next week, the government said.

President Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 insurgency who took office in August, has promised to bring "total peace" to the Andean country via negotiations with rebels and crime gangs.

"Yes, that's it," Petro told journalists outside a military airport, when asked about the talks and the government's negotiating team.

Colombian media reported he also confirmed talks, whose restart was announced last month, will begin on Monday, while a government source told Reuters it will be next week.

All arrest warrants for members of the rebel negotiating team, including possible extraditions, have been suspended, the attorney general's office said in a statement later on Thursday.

The talks will take place in Caracas, Venezuela, the statement added.

Venezuela, Cuba and Norway are guarantor countries and the government has said talks will rotate between them.

Previous attempts at negotiations with the ELN, which has some 2,400 combatants, have not advanced partly because of dissent within its ranks.

Initial talks between the ELN and the government of Juan Manuel Santos began in Ecuador, later moving to Cuba, but were called off in 2019 by Santos' successor Ivan Duque because the ELN refused to halt hostilities and killed 22 police cadets in a bombing.

Much of the ELN's negotiating team is older than many of its members and though rebel leadership has said the group is united, it is unclear how much sway negotiators hold over active units.

Petro has also promised to fully implement a 2016 peace deal with the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, as well as to seek de-arming of crime gangs in exchange for reduced sentences and drug trafficking information.

Colombia's conflict, which has run for nearly six decades, killed 450,000 people between 1985 and 2018.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Grant McCool)