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Switzerland paves way for Colombian peace talks

Colombian town of Suarez devastated in bomb blast blamed on rebels.

(Keystone)

Switzerland is organising peace talks between the groups engaged in Colombia's civil war. Berne announced late on Thursday that members of the Colombian government and of the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) would meet in Geneva on July 23.

The move follows a request by both parties for Switzerland to prepare a two-day conference in Geneva. The meeting is designed as a preliminary stage for a national conference of reconciliation.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it had been in touch with the Colombian government and the second largest rebel group, which has an estimated 6,000 men under arms, for several years. A spokesman said Swiss diplomats have now registered a change in the situation.

"After we sat down with the two parties this week, we felt there really was a will to find a peaceful solution for the country. I hope the time is now ripe for this to happen," the spokesman told swissinfo.

Switzerland has therefore issued an invitation to all groups involved in the Colombian civil war to join the talks in Geneva. "It's an open invitation," the spokesman said. "We would like all the parties, not just the government and the ELN, to renounce violence."

However, the ELN is probably the most active rebel group in recent times and has been responsible for the hijacking of a passenger plane in 1999. Since last year, the Cuban-sponsored ELN has also blown up some 300 electricity pylons in protest at the privatisation of the electricity industry.

The ELN has faced tough resistance from the rural population of Colombia in a land dispute, in which the rebels are claiming a demilitarised zone of over 4,500 square kilometres as their own.

The civil war in Columbia has so far claimed the lives of more than 120,000 people since 1964. Around two million people have lost their homes in the violence.

by Greg Morsbach

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