ELN guerrillas have begun the operation to release their last confirmed hostage, but failed to effectively release him on time for the inauguration of peace talks, Colombia’s chief government negotiator said Thursday.
Three hours before the planned inauguration of the peace talks, President Juan Manuel Santos announced he had suspended the process until the guerrillas effectively release former congressman Odin Sanchez.
The ELN had promised to release Sanchez when announcing the inauguration of the peace talks table in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, but failed to keep its word.
“The commitments established by the teams in the last round in Caracas were precise for both sides. It has always been clear that the effective release of the former congressman was necessary to begin the public phase,” government negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo said.
Nevertheless, the chief negotiator added, the first round of formal talks could still continue as scheduled on November 3 if the guerrillas succeed in releasing their hostage safe and sound on time.
Restrepo confirmed the Catholic Church’ claim that the operation to release Sanchez has begun in cooperation with the Red Cross.
“The government celebrates this development, and stressed it hopes this procedure will be concluded successfully,” said the chief negotiator from Bogota.
The ELN said they “do not agree with the suspension of the inauguration of the table.”
The guerrillas’ failure to timely release their hostage is the last of many incidents that have marked the mutual efforts to make peace 52 years after the formation of the ELN.
The initial announcement of talks was at the same time the first incident as it was made only five days ahead of the 2014 presidential elections. Consequently, Santos was accused of timing the announcement for electoral purposes.
It then took a year and a half for both parties to agree to proceed to a formal phase amid mutual military attacks and bickering about the other side’s lack of commitment to peace.
The mere setting of the date of the talks then took another five months after the president demanded the release of ELN hostages, a demand the ELN initially considered undue.
After numerous accusations back and forth about the opposite party’s goodwill, the government and ELN finally announced Thursday’s inauguration on October 10, under the condition the rebels release Sanchez.
This week, both sides announced their negotiation teams and Ecuador began the preparation of the ceremony and dozens of journalists flew to Quito to report on the beginning of the talks.
However, until Sanchez is in the hands of the Red Cross, no talks will be inaugurated and expectations that the negotiations will amount to an actual peace deal remain low.