Colombia's ELN says will free hostages after pressure from president

Bogota (AFP) –


Colombia's ELN guerrilla force announced Tuesday it would release nine hostages to comply with a demand by new President Ivan Duque in order to continue peace talks with his government.

The rebels' chief negotiator Pablo Beltran said the group was discussing how to carry out the releases with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"The protocols include coordinates of the place where the delivery will be made, and a nearby region in which neither the army, nor the police, nor the ELN, will be allowed take offensive actions in the days before the releases," Beltran told Colombia's Blu radio.

Beltran added that the conditions for the release should be in place "within eight days."

Colombia's defense ministry said Monday that it had activated a protocol for the release of hostages held by the ELN.

"The next step is the delivery, by the ELN, of the coordinates to proceed with the release of the hostages," the ministry said.

Talks between the previous government of Juan Manuel Santos and the ELN -- Colombia's last active rebel force since the disarmament of the FARC -- have been dragging on since February last year.

Duque, who assumed power last week, was elected on the back of campaign promises of taking a hard line in talks with the guerrillas. He lost no time in warning the ELN to hand over the hostages if it wanted to continue peace negotiations.

"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," Duque said Friday in a town close to the Ecuadoran border known for drug-trafficking violence and insecurity.

Since the end of the last round of the Cuban-hosted talks on August 1, the ELN have kidnapped nine people in different areas of Colombia -- four military, three police, and two civilian contractors.

Beltran justified the kidnappings by claiming the ELN's right to detain outsiders who attempt to pass through areas under its control.

The ELN has some 1,500 combatants and an extensive support network. Experts have pointed out the difficulties in negotiating with the group because of its federated structure and doubts over its unity of command.