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Colombia and No. 2 rebel group announce peace process just days ahead of presidential vote

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BOGOTA - Colombia's government and its No. 2 rebel group announced Tuesday that they have been holding exploratory peace talks, fueling hopes that the Andean nation's two long-enduring guerrilla conflicts could soon end.

The announcement came just five days ahead of presidential elections in which not just President Juan Manuel Santos' political fate but also that of his 18-month-old negotiations with Colombia's main insurgency hang in the balance.

His opponents called the announcement a political ploy.

A statement published on the presidency's website said exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, began in January. It says an agenda for formal talks would include "victims and the participation of society. The other topics remain to be agreed upon."

Santos told reporters that such talks will not commence until the ELN agrees to certain conditions, which he did not enumerate.

Santos reminded Colombians, however, that he had not agreed to open formal talks with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in November 2012, until after it met conditions he demanded including disarmament upon reaching a peace pact.

The rebels, known as the FARC, had earlier agreed to halt kidnappings as a revenue source. The ELN has also abducted for ransom.

"We are not going to put at risk, of course, the advances in Havana" with Colombia's main leftist rebel group, said Santos. He did not explain the announcement's timing or take questions.

Santos said the FARC talks in Cuba are in "their final phase" following Saturday's announcement that the parties had agreed on a framework for identifying and indemnifying the conflict's tens of thousands of victims.

The parties had already reached framework agreements on agrarian reform and rebel participation in politics and in dismantling the illegal drug trade.

The initial Colombia-ELN were held in Ecuador, that country's president, Rafael Correa, told reporters on Tuesday, naming the negotiators as Frank Pearl for the government and Antonio Garcia for the rebels. The top diplomats of Ecuador, Ricardo Patino, and Brazil, Celso Amorin, were involved in related talks in Cuba, said a senior foreign ministry official in Quito who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The joint statement does not mention a timeline for further talks or say when or where they might be held. It thanks Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Norway for "accompanying and helping to guarantee this process."

Santos' challenger in Sunday's runoff, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, is the chosen candidate of hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe and was the top vote-getter in a field of five in the May 25 first round of voting. Santos has since been endorsed by the main leftist candidate.

Zuluaga has been cagey on whether he would continue the negotiations with the FARC, though he has insisted the rebels halt all military activity. He and Uribe allege that Santos would grant FARC leaders "impunity" 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 defence 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.

Zuluaga's campaign manager, Marta Lucia Ramirez, called Tuesday's announcement pure politics, "an attempt to manipulate the anxiety we Colombians have about peace."

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.

Both rebel armies have been battling the government for a half-century.

The Cuban-inspired ELN has about 2,000 combatants, compared to some 8,000 for the FARC.

The ELN has a long history of kidnapping foreigners for ransom, of extorting businesses and of sabotaging Colombia's main oil pipeline

It launched its insurgency in 1965, a year after the FARC. While the FARC's founding commanders are dead, one of the ELN's founders, Nicolas Rodriguez, is now its top leader.

___

Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia in Bogota and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report. Bajak reported from Lima, Peru.

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