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By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - At least 40% of fighters from Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels could reject a potential peace deal being negotiated with the government, three high-level security sources told Reuters, citing reluctance to surrender profits from drug smuggling and illegal mining.
The estimate puts at risk ambitious plans by the country's first leftist leader, President Gustavo Petro, to end Colombia's six-decade war, which has killed 450,000 people, through accords with rebels and criminal groups.
The formation of dissident groups by ELN members would echo what was seen after a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, when hundreds of holdouts rejected the agreement and to this day continue illegal activities and fighting.
It would also appear to undermine repeated reassurances by ELN leaders that the group is united behind talks. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The atomized command structure of the ELN has long been a concern for security analysts and critics of the talks, who have warned the group's most radical units are unlikely to adhere to an accord.
The three security sources said some 2,300 of the ELN's total 5,850 members were seen as likely to reject the deal.
Most of them number among the group's 3,000 armed members and belong especially to its Western, Eastern and Northeastern Fronts, units based in the Pacific jungle and in several provinces along Colombia's porous eastern border with Venezuela, according to the sources.
"Illicit economies like drug trafficking and illegal mining and their millions in earnings will be the principal incentive for many members of the ELN to continue in their armed struggle and reject a peace accord," one of the sources said.
A second said another factor was the ELN's autonomous and difficult to control structure. "And many of its members are in Venezuela and they're not interested in entering a peace process," said the source.
It is unclear exactly how many former FARC members have rejected that group's accord, but about 15% of its fighters never signed the deal and formed an initial dissident faction, according to estimates by analysts.
And dozens, at least, of the 13,000 members who did back the accord later rejected it, founding a second major dissident group.
Reaching accords with the FARC dissidents - who have remained active in the conflict - is also among Petro's peace goals.
REBEL LEADERS STRESS UNITY
Both the ELN's head peace negotiator Pablo Beltran and its top armed commander Antonio Garcia have told Reuters in recent interviews that the group is united behind peace negotiations.
The group did not respond to a request for comment on the 40% estimate, but the Western Front's spokesman, who uses the alias Yerson, told a local media outlet this week that his unit is "not a loose wheel" and that it follows the ELN's national command structure.
The ELN talks, which restarted in November 2022, are the most advanced of Petro's peace efforts, which also include conversations with crime gangs like the Clan del Golfo.
Petro's high peace commissioner Danilo Rueda told Reuters there is a risk some fighters will not lay down arms and that internal divisions over unit autonomy and other issues are worrying, but said talks so far have demonstrated ELN unity.
"We don't deny the risks that could come from a dialogue that doesn't acknowledge that reality," Rueda said, but added that orders from national ELN leaders are respected by fighters.
The talks' methodology includes efforts to guarantee communication not just with leaders but fighters too, he added.
The ELN is different from the FARC and despite the power of regional commanders, is disciplined, said Ariel Avila, a security expert and senator for the Green Alliance.
He said the 40% estimate would be a very high figure.
"I don't think there will be large dissident groups," Avila said. "There will be dissidents, there are in all conflicts, but it will be a normal average between 10% and 15%."
Provisions in an eventual accord barring extradition abroad and protecting economic programs meant to provide jobs for former rebels must be implemented to discourage dissidents, Avila added.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)