Colombia ELN hostage release 'under way'

TV grab of Odin Sanchez in front of an ELN flag Image copyright AFP Photo/ RCN TV

A hostage in Colombia whose release was a key condition of peace talks with rebel guerrillas could soon be freed.

The government’s chief negotiator, Juan Camilo Restrepo, said an operation had begun for the ELN to hand Odin Sanchez over to the Red Cross.

Mr Sanchez, a former congressman, has been held hostage since he volunteered to swap places with his ill brother.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos postponed talks planned for Thursday, saying the release must happen first.

He said the government remained committed to “advancing with this process”.

Colombia’s government and the ELN have been engaged in an armed conflict for five decades but announced in March that they would open formal peace negotiations.

Who are the ELN rebels?

Image copyright Getty Images

  • Full name: National Liberation Army
  • The guerrilla group was founded in 1964 to fight Colombia’s unequal distribution of land and riches, inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959.
  • Over the decades, the group has attacked large landholders and multinational companies, and repeatedly blown up oil pipelines.
  • To finance itself it has resorted to extortion, kidnappings and drug trafficking.
  • It has been strongest in rural areas.

How significant is Colombia’s ELN rebel group?

The talks, originally scheduled to start in May, were delayed after the ELN rebels failed to meet the government’s demand that the guerrillas stop kidnapping people.

The ELN, who are the second largest rebel group in the country after the Farc, made a commitment not to carry out any more kidnappings and the two sides set a date of 27 October to start formal talks in neighbouring Ecuador.

But Mr Restrepo told Colombian radio on Monday: “If Odin Sanchez isn’t released safe and sound between now and Thursday, the conditions will not be in place to begin the public phase of the negotiations.”

In response, the ELN accused the government of “torpedoing” the negotiations.

Mr Sanchez handed himself in to the rebels in April in exchange for the release of his brother Patrocinio.

The former governor of north-western Choco province, Patrocinio Sanchez, was held by the rebels for almost three years and had fallen ill when his brother suggested the swap.

On Thursday, Mr Restrepo announced that the Red Cross, with help from the Catholic Church, were carrying out a release operation.

He did not indicate how long it would take but said talks would not begin until Mr Sanchez was returned “safe and sound”.

He said the government hoped it Mr Sanchez would be free in time for a talks commencement ceremony on 3 November.

Image copyright AFP

The government is struggling not only to salvage the peace talks with the ELN but also a deal struck with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The Farc and the government signed a peace deal last month but the agreement was rejected by Colombians in a popular vote on 2 October.

Farc and government negotiators are now trying to reach a new agreement which is acceptable to those who voted “no”.

More than 260,000 people have died in Colombia’s armed conflict which has pitted left-wing rebels against right-wing paramilitaries and the security forces.

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