Colombia president Duque warns ELN rebels over hostages

Bogota (AFP) –


Colombia President Ivan Duque warned ELN guerrillas on Friday they must release nine hostages taken over the previous 10 days if they want to continue peace talks initiated by his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos.

Three policemen and four soldiers are amongst the hostages captured by the Marxist rebels in two separate incidents, one last week and the other on Wednesday.

"The message is singular and very clear: if the ELN really has the desire to demobilize, disarm and rejoin (civil society), it must liberate the hostages quickly and without conditions," said Duque, who only assumed power on Tuesday after winning elections in June.

Duque, speaking from a border town close to Ecuador known for drug-trafficking violence and insecurity, said he wouldn't accept the ELN using kidnapping as a tactic to "intimidate and blackmail" his government in peace talks.

Last week, the ELN had offered to release the six hostages it had taken but demanded first an end to military operations in the northwestern Choco department.

However, three off-duty soldiers were kidnapped on Wednesday near the border with Venezuela, and the army immediately pointed the finger at the ELN.

The ELN, or National Liberation Army, has around 1,500 guerrillas and is the last recognized armed group fighting government forces in Colombia, following the 2016 peace accord signed with left-wing FARC rebels.

The group released a statement in Havana on Friday saying it was in contact with the International Red Cross to arrange the "prompt liberation of the armed forces and civilians."

However, it demanded various guarantees, including an "agreement of protocols in accordance with a humanitarian commission with the United Nations."

The ELN also implored the military not to put the hostages' lives at risk by continuing its anti-rebel operations.

Last week, Santos admitted falling short in his bid to sign a ceasefire with the ELN before handing over power to Duque.

The hard-right new president has vowed to be tougher on Cuban-hosted negotiations with the rebel group, including a demand for a "suspension of all its criminal activities."