BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is the biggest obstacle to implementing Colombia’s peace deal because of the protection afforded to rebels residing in his country, a Colombian official said on Tuesday.

The government of Colombian President Ivan Duque has repeatedly accused Venezuela of sheltering former members of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who reject a 2016 peace deal.

Venezuela has denied protecting FARC dissidents and other armed groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels.

Protection of dissident groups under the command of former FARC leaders Ivan Marquez and Jesus Santrich blocks military action against them, the Colombian government says.

“The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the (peace) agreements by sheltering criminals such as Ivan Marquez, Jesus Santrich, alias El Paisa and alias Romana,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace Miguel Ceballos told Reuters.

The Venezuelan government was not immediately available to respond to Ceballos’ comments. The country was an observer at the Havana, Cuba peace negotiations which produced the 2016 accord.

Total combatants belonging to armed groups including FARC dissidents, the ELN and crime gangs like the Clan del Golfo, Los Caparros and Los Pelusos number around 7,000, Ceballos said.

The government could only potentially negotiate another peace deal with the ELN, Ceballos said, as it the only one of the groups recognized as a political-motivated entity.

Some 200 individual members of other armed groups – including FARC dissidents – have surrendered in the last 11 months.

“We have created the route for individual surrender so that people belonging to armed groups who want to take that step can do so,” Ceballos said.

Tenuous peace negotiations with the ELN collapsed in early 2019 after a bombing at Bogota’s police academy killed more than 20 people. The group also rejects government preconditions for talks, including a unilateral cease fire.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; writing by Oliver Griffin; editing by Richard Pullin

Source: Reuters