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Tuesday, August 3, 1999 Published at 01:58 GMT 02:58 UK


World: Americas

Colombian president calls for peace talks

Rebels have been fighting during three decades of civil war

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has again extended an offer of peace talks to the country's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

But Mr Pastrana said that negotiations would only begin when guerrillas released more than 60 hostages they have kidnapped over the last few months.


The BBC's James Reynolds: Many doubt the government can achieve an end to the civil war
"The guarantee of the start of the political process with the National Liberation Army is the word of the president," he said, during a visit to Bucaramanga, in the north of the country.

Among the ELN's hostages are thought to be passengers and crew from a plane hijacked by the rebels in April, while others are from a church congregation the guerillas abducted in May.

The BBC's South America Correspondent James Reynolds says until now the government and the ELN have failed to reach agreement on whether to hold peace talks.

Preliminary negotiations which took place earlier this year in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, also led to nothing.

'Escalation of violence'

President Pastrana's call for peace talks comes amid growing international concern over the scale of the Colombian civil war.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Colombian Government and the rebels to hold negotiations, saying he was concerned about the loss of life in the conflict.

Mr Annan's spokesman Fred Eckhard said: "The past weeks have brought a worrisome escalation of violence at a time when peace negotiations were set to take place."


[ image: Buildings were destroyed during three days of attacks in Narino]
Buildings were destroyed during three days of attacks in Narino
He said the UN secretary-general was particularly concerned about the death of four children and nine police officers during weekend bomb attacks in Narino, a sugar and coffee-producing town 450km north-west of the capital, Bogota.

The blasts were attributed to the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Talks on a possible agenda for official peace negotiations between the government and FARC have been postponed for a third time.

Our correspondent says that despite Mr Pastrana's efforts, many in Colombia doubt that the government can achieve an end to the country's three-decade-long civil war.

One recent opinion poll shows that the Colombian president and the country's guerrilla and paramilitary leaders are now the most unpopular people in the country, according to our correspondent.



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