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Colombia’s ELN Rebels Free Hostage, Peace Talks Still Stalled
The ELN has completed exploratory peace talks with the government, but the launch of formal negotiations has been delayed.
TeleSUR / Monday 2 January 2017
Members of the ELN pictured in Cali, Colombia, July 16, 2013. Photo: AFP

Colombia’s second largest left-wing rebel army, the ELN, has released a hostage after holding him for more than nine months and provided proof that another key hostage is still alive, in a move that could be seen as a gesture of goodwill to advance peace talks with the government that have stalled in recent months.

The National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, handed over businessman Octavio Figueroa directly to his family Saturday after holding him hostage since his capture on March 16 in the northeastern Colombian province of Guajira, bordering Venezuela.

“My father was released by the ELN around midday in Guajira, in a rural area of the Maicao municipality bordering Venezuela,” Figueroa’s son, Armando, told AFP.

“I cannot hide the happiness that the release of Octavio Figueroa gives me,” Armando wrote on his Twitter account. “We continue waiting for the return home of all hostages.”

According to local media, Figueroa was released in good health. The hostage reportedly told his family that the months-long experience had been “very hard, very difficult,” Armando told AFP.

When Figueroa went missing in march, the case was initially suspected of being linked to organized crime and was not treated as a kidnapping by a rebel group. But ELN leader Ismael Ramirez, better known by his alias Pablo Beltran, confirmed on Oct. 28 that Figueroa was in the rebel army’s hands.

The family reportedly had to paid a ransom to secure Figueroa’s release. Although the amount was not specified, AFP reported that it was allegedly less than the US$5 million initially requested.

Meanwhile, the ELN also released a video on social media Saturday providing proof that another hostage, former member of Congress Odin Sanchez, is still alive and captive in a rebel camp. In the video, Sanchin extended greeting to his family and expressed “anguish” over the ongoing uncertainty swirling around the ELN peace process, stuck in limbo after more than two years of preliminary peace talks paved the way for formal negotiations that have yet to begin.

Sanchez has been at the center of tensions between the ELN and the Colombian government, and differing interpretations of agreements for his eventual release prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to canceled the launch of official peace talks with ELN rebels at the last minute on Oct. 27. ELN leaders have said that Sanchez will be released when the government agrees to pardon two ELN prisoners.

Although both the government and the ELN have reiterated their commitment to working toward peace, the process remains frozens as the start of formal talks has not been rescheduled.

The Colombian government reached a historic agreement with the largest rebel army, the FARC, in 2016, bringing an end to more than half a century of internal armed conflict that has claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million victims.

Peace advocates and rebels alike have long maintained that peace will not be complete in Colombia until a deal is also reached with the ELN.