Colombia’s military said Sunday it rescued eight minors and captured 12 adult members of the left-wing rebel group the ELN in the north of the country.
The major blow against Colombia’s last standing guerrilla group took place in the northern province of Bolivar, an area of major importance for the Marxist rebels, less than two weeks before expected peace talks.
The army said the minors will be immediately put under state protection and condemned the ELN practice of recruiting child soldiers stating that they “continued to infringe international human rights with the continued forced recruitment of underage recruits.”
This latest operation against the ELN rebels in the municipality of Montecristo comes as a stalemate over the formalization of peace talks with the government continues.
The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the rebels agreed a framework for peace talks in March to bring to an end the conflict that has been ongoing for over 50 years.
However, little progress has been made on the talks that were due to take place in Ecuador after the government introduced a new demand, the release of a former congressman held hostage by the ELN since April last year.
On Saturday, the ELN released businessman Octavio Figueroa, held in captivity since March 2016.
Figueroa was freed close to the Venezuelan border after an undisclosed ransom was paid, reported BBC news.
The peace talks were scheduled to commence on October 27 in Ecuador but the ongoing uncertainty led to their postponement.
The rebels continue to hold former congressman Odin Sanchez who has been at the center of tensions between the two sides.
A video released on social media by the ELN on Saturday confirmed that Sanchez is still alive but continues to be used as a bargaining chip by the rebels as they demand that the government pardon two of their members in exchange for his freedom.
In 2016, the government reached a historic peace deal with the South American country’s largest left-wing rebel group the FARC.
A dramatic improvement in relations with the ELN is needed before a similar process can be initiated with them to bring to an end Latin America’s longest internal conflict.