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Rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) hold a banner in the northwestern jungles in Colombia, August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios


By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia and the Marxist ELN rebel group said on Monday they agreed a temporary ceasefire that would run through mid-January 2018, but it would not be in effect when Pope Francis arrives in the Andean country for a visit later this week.

The ceasefire, the first with the ELN, is due to begin on Oct. 1 and end on Jan. 12, with the possibility for extensions if it is respected, President Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised address to the country.

"The priority is to protect citizens, so during this period, kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and other hostilities against the civilian population will cease," he said.

The two sides have long said the pope's visit would be a good opportunity to call a ceasefire. The government said details and verification methods were still being finalised and that was why the ceasefire did not begin immediately.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, which has bombed oil installations and kidnapped for ransom, was founded by radical Catholic priests in 1964. The ELN and government are in peace talks, currently being held in Ecuador, to end 53 years of war.

Since the talks began in February, the ELN has continued to take hostages for ransom, launch bomb attacks and extort foreign oil and mining companies.

The ELN told Reuters last week that it had killed Russian-Armenian citizen Arsen Voskanyan in April.

The ELN’s practice of kidnapping civilians is a key issue at the peace talks.

The ELN told Reuters last week that they were not optimistic a peace agreement could be reached because neither side would give ground on kidnapping.

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Colombia on Wednesday evening for a five-day visit to the cities of Bogota, Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.

The ELN said in a statement on its website on Monday, "We have said that the visit of Pope Francis should be an extra motivator to accelerate our work for an accord."

"Once the days of celebration of the presence of Francis have passed, we will continue to insist on advancing toward the de-escalation of the conflict, until complete peace is a reality."

(Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Trott and Nick Zieminski)

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