BOGOTA — Colombia's government and last remaining major rebel group signed a bilateral cease-fire Monday ahead of Pope Francis' visit this week, an agreement seen as a significant step toward negotiating a permanent peace deal.
The deal struck in Quito, Ecuador, where talks with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have been taking place since February, goes into effect Oct. 1. It runs through Jan. 12 and can be renewed if both sides agree.
Under the cease-fire, the rebels agree to suspend attacks on infrastructure, kidnappings and recruitment of minors. In exchange the government has vowed to boost protection for social leaders who have recently come under attack and develop a program that would provide humanitarian aid to rebels, among other measures.
Reconciliation is expected to be a central theme of the trip by Francis, who has lobbied for an end to Colombia's decades-old civil conflict and who is fulfilling a promise to visit if peace was made with the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"The pope is arriving amid a unique moment in our history, as we turn the page on an absurd conflict and look to the future with hope," President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday in a televised address.
The government's chief negotiator called the cease-fire, signed five years to the date after a framework agreement that kicked off peace talks with the FARC, "historic."
"This is the first agreement of this nature that the government has signed with this guerrilla group in more than 50 years," Juan Camilo Restrepo said in a statement. "And it constitutes the first step toward advancing a definitive peace."
Over five decades of conflict involving the two rebel movements, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups have resulted in more than 260,000 deaths, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of 6 million.
Under the earlier deal between the government and the FARC, the group has turned over its weapons and is in the process of reorganizing as a political movement to compete in elections next year.
But negotiations with the more ideological and less centralized ELN have been slower since exploratory talks began more than three years ago.
Unlike the FARC, which financed itself through involvement in Colombia's flourishing drug trade, the ELN funds its insurgency mainly through kidnappings and extortion.
Until now it has refused to abandon those practices, earning the enmity of many Colombians who want Santos to take a tougher line in talks than he did with the FARC.
"The priority is protecting citizens," Santos said. "That's why during this period the kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and other hostilities against the civilian population will cease."
Labeled a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union, the ELN has also stepped up its attacks on Colombia's energy infrastructure this year.
Last week state-run oil company Ecopetrol was forced to close the country's second-largest pipeline after it was blasted by a bomb, dumping crude into an adjacent watershed. It was the 43rd attack this year against the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline.
The ELN, whose founders included radical Roman Catholic priests, is believed to have about 1,500 active fighters.
The cease-fire will be verified by independent observers, the United Nations and the Catholic Church.
Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press