BOGOTA – The beginning of formal talks between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla group, set for Thursday in the Ecuadorian capital, was put off pending the rebels’ release of a former congressman abducted six months ago.
“I want to inform the country that I have given instructions to the team negotiating with the ELN to suspend their trip to the city of Quito,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in a nationally televised speech.
The start of the dialogue with Colombia’s second-largest insurgency will be delayed until Odin Sanchez is released “safe and sound,” Santos said.
Hours earlier, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said the government was ready to proceed with the start of the talks “at the moment we are sure of the liberation of Odin Sanchez.”
Odin Sanchez has been in the hands of the ELN since he volunteered to take the place of his brother Patrocinio, former governor of the northwestern province of Choco, who was grabbed by the guerrillas in 2013.
“We do not share (the decision) to suspend the installation of the dialogue,” the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said on Twitter after Santos’ announcement.
Meanwhile, the government’s point man for talks with the ELN, Juan Camilo Restrepo, said the International Committee of the Red Cross informed him that the operation for Sanchez’s release was under way.
“The commitments established by the government and ELN teams during the last round in Caracas were precise for both parties. So it was always clear that the liberation of ex-congressman Odin Sanchez was necessary to start this public phase (of the peace process),” Restrepo said.
Santos said he personally informed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa of the postponement of the start of the talks and thanked him for his “understanding and collaboration.”
Ecuador subsequently issued a statement reaffirming its willingness to provide a venue for the negotiations.
The Colombian government is currently engaged in renewed discussions with the much-larger FARC insurgency on proposed changes to a peace accord signed in September.
The two sides were forced back to the table after slightly more than half of the less than 38 of eligible voters who cast ballots said “no” to the pact in an Oct. 2 referendum.