Colombia’s second-biggest rebel group has begun the process of releasing a hostage, a key condition for the start of peace talks with the government, officials say.
Former congressman Odin Sanchez has been held by the National Liberation Army (ELN) since he volunteered to swap places with his ill brother in April.
The peace talks were due to begin on Thursday in Ecuador. But President Juan Manuel Santos said Mr Sanchez had to be released first. The government remained committed to “advancing with this process”, he added.
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.
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.
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.