UN chief heading to Colombia this weekend to support peace

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is heading to Colombia this weekend to support peace efforts amid growing concerns about the integration of the country’s largest rebel group and new attacks by the last rebel holdouts.

His trip was announced Wednesday as the Security Council was meeting to discuss the U.N. mission in Colombia monitoring the 2016 cease-fire agreement that ended more than a half century of conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel group known as the FARC.

The U.N. mission was also monitoring a three-month temporary cease-fire between the government and the last and smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN. It ended Tuesday and the ELN launched new attacks Wednesday, leading the government to suspend talks on extending the cease-fire.

The Security Council reiterated its support for the peace process in Colombia, welcomed Guterres’ trip and praised commitment of the government and FARC to the peace agreement. Members expressed regret at the ELN attacks and said they hope the government and rebel group will resume work on renewing and strengthening the cease-fire.

At the council meeting, the U.N. envoy for Colombia, Jean Arnault, said the clamor for a suspension of military action by the ELN has been unanimous throughout the country, “notwithstanding the many imperfections of the cease-fire.”

But he said in light of the latest attacks it is “too early to venture a sense of what the future holds in terms of the situation on the ground and at the negotiating table.”

Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo told reporters that the government wanted to promote dialogue to maintain the cease-fire but “sadly, inexplicably, the ELN has rejected it and has resorted to terrorism.”

Nonetheless, he said, “we stand ready to do all we can in order to ensure that that cease-fire can continue.”

“I would like to assure you that the government is not walking away from peace,” Naranjo told the council. “I think that our government has demonstrated to the entire world that we, in particular our president, are proponents and champions of peace. We are peacemakers and peacebuilders.”

As for the FARC, Arnault said the U.N. is concerned about the reintegration of its 14,000 former combatants into Colombia’s economy and social fabric.

“We must not forget that we are dealing with a large group of former fighters whose level of accumulated frustration with the reintegration process — illustrated by the number of members still in prison — is not easy to overcome,” he said.

He noted Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has recognized “the need for access to land ownership as a major incentive for reintegration” for FARC members.

“These are promising developments, but only that,” Arnault said. “The next few months must be the opportunity to ‘turn the corner,’ as it were, and establish what is still a fragile process on a more durable basis.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres will meet with Santos and other civilian and military officials from the government Saturday and will hold talks with leaders of the FARC, the Roman Catholic Church, civic groups and the U.N. mission.

Dujarric told reporters the secretary-general’s agenda also includes a visit to the central province of Meta on Sunday to see the training and reintegration of former FARC guerrillas.