BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The government of President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's No. 2 rebel group announced Tuesday that they have initiated a peace process, heralding hopes for an end to both of the country's two, long-enduring guerrilla conflicts.
A statement published on the Colombian presidency's website Tuesday said exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army began in January and that the agenda will include "victims and the participation of society. The other topics remain to be agreed upon."
The preliminary talks have been held in Ecuador and Brazil, said a Colombian lawmaker who spoke on condition he not be further identified.
Publication of the brief six-point statement comes five days before presidential elections in which Santos is seeking re-election against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the chosen candidate of hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe.
Santos' government has been engaged in peace talks with the far larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since November 2012, and the fate of those talks hangs in the balance in Sunday's election.
Zuluaga has not guaranteed that he would continue the negotiations and he, like Uribe, has been highly critical of what he calls the "impunity" that Santos would allegedly offer rebel leaders as part of a pact. Santos denies any such offer has been made.
In a debate on Monday night, Santos said to Zuluaga: "You want to continue this war. I want to end it."
Both men served in Uribe's Cabinet, Zuluaga as finance minister, Santos as defense minister.
Uribe considers Santos' opening of peace talks with the FARC a personal betrayal. Recently elected to the Senate, he remains immensely popular for weakening the FARC with close U.S. military and intelligence assistance.
A former interior minister, Horacio Serpa, predicted Tuesday's announcement would thrust Santos to victory in what has been an extremely tight race.
"Santos had an ace up his sleeve," said Serpa. "I hope that, with this, he defeats the others."
Santos said in Monday's debate that the FARC talks may be Colombia's last chance for a negotiated peace with the Western Hemisphere's main rebel band. Three previous efforts beginning in the 1980s had failed.
The statement on talks with the smaller rebel group, known by its Spanish initials as the ELN, makes clear that those talks remain in an exploratory phase. It does not mention a timeline for formal talks or say when they might begin, or even where.
It thanks Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Norway for "accompanying and helping to guarantee this process."
Both rebel armies have been battling Colombian government for a half-century. The ELN has about 2,000 combatants, compared to some 8,000 for the larger group.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.