(Adds background on ELN, FARC)
By Helen Murphy
BOGOTA, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Colombia’s second-biggest leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army, would be willing to declare a ceasefire if peace talks to end 50 years of war with the government begin, it said in a video posted on its Twitter account on Wednesday.
The 1,500-strong group, known as the ELN, has been engaged in secret exploratory talks with the government for months to draw up terms that may lead to formal negotiations. If they go ahead, the insurgents may cease attacks against government and civilian targets.
“The government has said it wants to end armed conflict ... we have assisted in dialogue to examine the real will of the government and if at the end of the analysis we conclude that arms are no longer necessary, we are ready to consider giving them up,” the ELN said.
The government is already in negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s biggest rebel movement, to end a conflict that began in 1964.
War with the two Marxist insurgent groups and right-wing paramilitaries has killed almost a quarter of a million people over the past five decades. Though kidnapping now is relatively rare, both groups regularly attack oil pipelines.
President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his political legacy on bringing an end to the conflict that has caused massive social and economic damage over the years.
A U.S.-backed military offensive and expanded intelligence work that began in 2000 helped push the groups deeper into jungle and mountain terrain, damaging communication networks and making it more difficult to launch large-scale attacks.
While Santos has refused to let up his offensive against either rebel group until a peace deal is signed, a possible ELN ceasefire during talks may show how serious it is about ending its struggle.
The FARC just weeks ago called an indefinite ceasefire while talks are underway.
“Santos’ government has the dilemma of persisting with the policy of war and pacification or dare to take a true path to peace,” the ELN said of the government’s refusal to call a ceasefire.
The ELN is considerably smaller than the Marxist FARC rebels, which have some 8,000 fighters. The founders of the ELN - a group of radical Catholic priests - were inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959, while the FARC’s uprising was more guided by the ideology of the Soviet Union.
The two groups have battled a dozen governments since they formed in 1964 and were once rivals which fought each other. In recent years they have forged alliances.
Both are considered terrorist groups by the United States and the European Union.
The ELN, headed by Nicolas Rodriguez, wants to change government policies it says excessively benefit foreign interests. The FARC has called for a major overhaul of land distribution to help the nation’s poor.
The ELN has sought peace before, holding talks in Cuba and Venezuela between 2002 and 2007. Experts say there was a lack of will on both sides back then to agree a final peace plan. (Reporting by Helen Murphy Editing by W Simon)