By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's Marxist-led ELN rebels could declare a unilateral ceasefire to honor Pope Francis on his visit to the country next month, a leader of the group founded by radical Roman Catholic priests told Reuters.
"His holiness Francis is a pope who has returned the church to think in terms of the impoverished and excluded majorities. He is a progressive pope and anything we Colombians can do to receive him is a gesture for the support he gives to the peace process," said Pablo Beltran of the National Liberation Army.
The ELN and President Juan Manuel Santos's government are negotiating a peace deal in Ecuador, and a temporary bilateral ceasefire for the pontiff's visit is possible, Beltran, a member of the ELN's leadership and its chief negotiator in the peace talks, said in a phone interview from Quito late on Wednesday.
He said no two-way truce agreement had been reached yet, however, with less than less than a month to go before the pope arrives in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
"We're going to make all the necessary effort so that the ceasefire is bilateral, but if it's not achievable we will consider the possibility of making 6it unilateral," said Beltran, a member of the ELN's leadership and its chief negotiator in the peace talks.
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The ELN was founded in 1964 by rebels inspired by Cuba's 1959 revolution and it was led for decades by Catholic priests driven by some of the more radical ideas behind Liberation Theology.
The government and the ELN began formal peace negotiations in February after more than three years of behind-the-scenes talks on an agenda and logistics.
Santos has demanded that the rebel group stop kidnappings, hostilities against civilians and attacks on oil infrastructure to move toward a bilateral ceasefire. The ELN has said the attacks are defensive and respond to military offensives against its fighters.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the possibility of a temporary ceasefire.
Beltran also said the ELN has moved into areas once occupied by the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed a peace deal with the government late last year, ending its part in a half-century conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.
Many former FARC areas are being overrun by right-wing paramilitary groups and the ELN is trying to protect the civilian population, Beltran said.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Tom Brown)