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News > Latin America

Colombia's ELN Rebels Release Key Hostage, Boosting Peace Talks

  • The ELN have held Odin Sanchez since April 2016.

    The ELN have held Odin Sanchez since April 2016. | Photo: EFE

Published 2 February 2017

The release of Odin Sanchez, held hostage for 10 months in ELN camps, has been a linchpin in the peace process with the government.

The peace process between the Colombian government and the country's second-largest rebel army, the ELN, received a major boost Thursday as the rebels released a high-profile hostage, fulfilling the government's central precondition for advancing formal end of conflict negotiations that have stalled for months.

ELN Announces Capture of Colombian Soldier Spying on Rebels

The National Liberation Army, also known as ELN, handed over former member of Congress Odin Sanchez to a humanitarian commission of the Red Cross, the mediator in the release, near the Baudo River in the department of Choco.

"The humanitarian commission of the ELN kept its word of delivering Mr. Odin," the official radio of the ELN, Ranpal, wrote on its Twitter account.

Earlier Thursday morning, Sanchez told Colombia's W Radio that he was boarding a helicopter en route to his release. After the exchange between the ELN and the Red Cross, Sanchez was transported in another helicopter to Quibdo, where he was set to meet his family.

In an interview with Caracol Radio ahead of his release, Sanchez described his mental and spiritual health as "enviable." A day ahead of his release, Sanchez delivered a video message from inside the ELN camp to his family and Colombian society in which he reported that he was being treated well by his rebel captors.

Meanwhile, a second operation was also launched Thursday morning for the government to deliver two pardoned ELN members to the rebel group.

"We await with great care and joy the release of our pardoned comrades who are in poor health," the ELN peace delegation wrote on its Twitter account, along with updates reporting that the operation to hand over the two ELN members was in process.

The rebel army demanded that the government pardon two ELN prisoners in exchange for Sanchez' release. The prisoner exchange has been the main pending issue that has kept peace negotiations between the two sides of the more than five-decade-old conflict from moving forward.

Talks were initially scheduled to begin on Oct. 27 in Ecuador, but the government called off the event in a surprise move just hours before it was set to begin, citing the ELN's failure to release Sanchez as the reason for the postponement. Disagreement over the timeline for Sanchez' release revealed differing interpretations of preliminary agreements that laid the foundation for formal talks.

ELN Questions Colombian Govt Will for Peace After Killing Wave

President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly said that the negotiations cannot move forward before Sanchez' release, but the ELN pressed authorities to also pardon two rebels as a show of goodwill to advance the process.

Now, the ELN and government are expected to hold talks in Ecuador on Feb. 7. The two sides hit a breakthrough last March after more than two years of preliminary talks, agreeing to a roadmap for peace negotiations. Delegates met for working group sessions in Ecuador last month as a precursor to the first round of official talks.

In an open letter published Thursday, ELN peace delegation leaders shared a message with the country, thanking society for its supporting the peace process.

"We appreciate your interest in accompanying the process of transformation that is in progress to create certainty of peace in Colombia," wrote leader Pablo Beltran, Aureliano Carbonell and Bernando Tellez. "Because all of you are leaders of peace, coming with the purpose of promoting social justice and democratization of the country."

The statement added that the world should know the reality of "political persecution" in Colombia, including systematic attacks against human rights defenders and social activists, and highlighted the proposal for getting violence out of politics once and for all through the peace process.

The ELN leaders also stressed the importance of the participation of society in the peace talks, aimed at bringing an end to over 50 years of armed conflict with government forces. The statement concluded expressing "hope to achieve a better world."

Colombia's ELN was founded in 1964, inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The country's larger rebel army, the FARC, also mobilized the same year, and recently reached a breakthrough agreement with the government after more than half a century of armed conflict.

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