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article imageSantos: no guarantee of peace with ELN rebels by end of mandate

By AFP     Dec 10, 2016 in World

Hours before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he could offer no guarantees there would be a peace deal in place with ELN rebels before the end of his mandate in 2018.

"I cannot guarantee that we will finish before the end of my mandate," Santos told AFP in an interview in Oslo, referring to talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-largest rebel group after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"I will do my best but to establish a timeframe is always counter-productive in negotiations of this sort," he said.

Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel prize for his peace efforts, including his bid to end a five-decade conflict with the Marxist FARC rebels that has killed more than 260,000 people, left 45,000 missing and forced nearly seven million to flee their homes.

Santos's government and the FARC signed a peace accord on November 24, after a first agreement was unexpectedly rejected by Colombians an October 2 referendum.

The peace deal calls for the FARC's disarmament and its transformation into a political movement.

But, before Colombia can have total peace, the ELN, which has 1,500 guerrillas, also has to lay down its arms.

- 'Kidnapping not acceptable' -

The ELN and the government began secret talks in January 2014 to pave the way for official talks but the process has stumbled over the issue of hostages and prisoners held by the two sides.

"Kidnapping, specifically kidnapping civilians, is something that is not acceptable ... We have told them 'You have to free the people you have kidnapped in order to start public negotiations'," Santos told AFP.

"They have not complied with this demand. When they comply with this demand, we're ready to start public negotiations," he said.

The Colombian government has suspended the preparatory talks until January 10, insisting that the ELN first release hostage ex-congressman Odin Sanchez.

The ELN has meanwhile called for the simultaneous release of two imprisoned rebels who are due to be pardoned.

Santos said the hardest part of the peace process in his country was yet to come.

The period ahead "is a more difficult phase than the (negotiation) process itself, and will require a lot of effort, perseverance and humility," he said.

"A lot of coordination efforts will also be needed across the entire government to bring the benefits of peace to the regions that have suffered the most in the conflict," he added.

Santos will receive the prize on Saturday afternoon at Oslo's City Hall at a ceremony attended by the royal family, members of the Norwegian government, representatives of victims of the conflict, and two high-profile former FARC hostages, Ingrid Betancourt and Clara Rojas.

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