Colombia's ELN rebels free six hostages as government evaluates peace talks

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's ELN rebel group on Wednesday freed six more hostages it seized last month, the guerrillas and the government said, as right-wing President Ivan Duque evaluates whether to resume peace negotiations with the insurgents.

Duque, who took office on Aug. 7, has said the Marxist rebels need to free a total of 19 hostages they have been holding and halt criminal activity like drug trafficking before he will restart the negotiations, which began with the previous government 18 months ago.

Earlier this month, the ELN freed three hostages. The government has said the group holds 10 other civilians. Those released on Wednesday were three police officers, a soldier and two civilians contracted by the armed forces.

The last round of the negotiations, which are being held in Cuba, ended on Aug. 1, before former President Juan Manuel Santos left office.

"We accompanied the humanitarian commission that facilitated the release of six people who were being held by the ELN since August. We're happy that you will soon be able to reunite with your families," the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a tweet.

The government human rights ombudsman also confirmed the release, which took place in the Pacific province of Choco.

In a video message, an ELN commander known only by his nom de guerre, Uriel, said: "The ELN keeps its word."

The government and the ELN failed to reach a ceasefire agreement at the end of the most recent round of talks. The guerrillas renewed bomb attacks and kidnappings after a bilateral ceasefire, the first-ever between the two sides, expired in January.

Colombia has been at war with the 1,500-member ELN, which was founded by radical Catholic priests, since 1964.

Duque has expressed anger at a 2016 agreement reached with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, which he has said is too lenient toward the former guerrillas.

He said he did not want a similar deal with the ELN.

Colombia's conflict between the government, rebel groups, paramilitaries and crime gangs has lasted more than 50 years, killing at least 260,000 people and displacing millions.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Peter Cooney)

09/12/2018 18:49

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