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Colombia To Begin Peace Talks With Country's 2nd Largest Rebel Group ELN

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, the president of Colombia is trying again. His country's voters rejected a peace deal with Colombian rebels. Soon afterward, President Juan Manuel Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize for that peace deal that is now dead. It was an effort to end a 50-year war against a group called the FARC. Now the president is opening talks with a different rebel army called the ELN. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The National Liberation Army, or ELN, rose up in the 1960s. The group was inspired by the Cuban Revolution and was founded by university students and radical Catholic priests. But the ELN never came close to seizing power. Today, the ELN is thought to have fewer than 1,500 fighters. But it continues to bomb oil pipelines, extort businesses and kidnap civilians for ransom.

The Colombian government has spent the past two years trying to bring the ELN to the peace table. Now it's about to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a news conference in Venezuela, the two sides announced they would start formal peace talks later this month in Quito, Ecuador.

PABLO BELTRAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To improve the atmosphere at the negotiations, ELN commander Pablo Beltran said, the rebels would release their final two hostages before the talks begin on October 27.

As Colombia moves haltingly towards peace with the larger FARC guerrilla group, analysts say the ELN is isolated and is coming under greater pressure from the Colombian army. The breakthrough is a boost for President Santos, who's been through an emotional wringer. Last month, Santos signed a historic peace accord with the FARC in a deal that was supposed to end a half century of fighting. But in a binding referendum on October 2, voters narrowly rejected the accord, throwing the peace process into disarray. Five days later came the surprise announcement from Norway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016 to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

OTIS: That decision was widely viewed as a highly public push for Colombia to overcome the final hurdles towards ending the country's guerrilla conflicts. In a televised speech, President Santos vowed to demobilize both the FARC and the ELN.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He said, "Peace will not slip through our fingers. The world is watching us and is expecting the best."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.