President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday said the only way Colombia’s second largest rebel group ELN can take part in peace talks is after the release of all hostages currently in the rebels’ power.
Speaking in Bogota, Santos repeated his desire to get the rebel group to the negotiating table. Santos in April expressed his desire to initiate peace talks with the group “sooner rather than later” but has now specified the rebels would have to meet with certain conditions before the government and the rebel group can begin to discuss peace.
“Eventually, if the ELN decides to enter [in the peace talks] and for us to agree, they will first have to release all their captives, above all the Canadian” said Santos, referring to Jernoc Wobert, a Canadian miner who was captured by the ELN in late January.
The ELN declared in February that Wobert, who was captured along with three Peruvians and two Colombians (all of whom have been released), would “remain” in captivity.
The rebel group claims the motive of the kidnapping was to draw government attention to allegedly corrupt government actions in granting of mining contracts to international companies however, in the aftermath of the kidnapping, Armed Forces commander General Alejandro Navas suggested that the rebels had interests in forcing peace talks with the government.
“This subversive group applies different forms of fighting. They have economic and political motives … They have the interest in drawing the government’s attention to initiate talks” he said after the six men were taken hostage in January.
ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”, in March declared that the left wing group is ready and willing to discuss peace as and when the government wants, stating “when prior governments have set out their willingness for peace, the ELN has been available. Since last year we have said to President [Juan Manuel] Santos that if public opinion is for peace, they can count on the ELN.”
The ELN, with between 1,500 and 3,000 armed members, has been waging war against the Colombian state for nearly half a century. For many years, the rebel group waged a limited war against the larger rebel group FARC. More recently, however, the two groups have increasingly been cooperating, as evidenced by a series of regional alliances in northern Colombia.