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Colombia ELN rebels agree to free captive, start peace talks

Last Updated Jan 18, 2017 at 5:40 pm MDT

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Guillaume Long, right, points the way to Colombian government representative Juan Camilo Restrepo, center, and rebel representative Pablo Beltran, of the National Liberation Army (ELN), left, for a joint press conference in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Colombia's second-largest rebel group has agreed to free a prominent politician that it has held captive for almost a year, clearing the way for repeatedly postponed peace talks to begin next month. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

BOGOTA – Colombia’s second-largest rebel group has agreed to free a prominent politician held captive for almost a year, clearing the way for repeatedly postponed peace talks to begin next month.

The agreement worked out during months of backchannel talks with the National Liberation Army was announced at a news conference Wednesday in Quito, Ecuador.

The two sides have been holding exploratory peace talks for more than three years. Almost a year ago they announced the start of formal negotiations, but those talks were frozen before even getting off the ground over Santos’ demand that the group renounce kidnapping and free the politician it has been holding for 10 months.

President Juan Manuel Santos praised the breakthrough from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“This is very, very good news for the country,” said Santos, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for reaching a peace deal with the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. “We have been trying to start these official negotiations for over three years. It has been a very difficult process. But this second stage that starts next month is very important because it will allow us to have complete peace.”

The smaller group, known by its Spanish initials as the ELN, has an estimated 1,500 fighters and largely finances its insurgency through extortion and kidnappings. Like the bigger FARC, it is classified by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.

Unlike the peasant-based FARC, the ELN shares a tradition with other leftist insurgencies in Latin America that were formed by urban students and intellectuals in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.

Last year, many thought it had turned its back on criminal activity when it released a prominent politician who had been held for more than two years. Days later, though, a darker truth emerged: Instead of being freed, former Gov. Patrocinio Sanchez Montes de Oca had been exchanged for his older brother Odin Sanchez, a former congressman.

Ever since, Santos held firm that he would not allow talks to begin until Sanchez was free. While the rebels freed a group of rice farmers they also took captive, they held onto Sanchez with the hopes of forcing the government to free several jailed rebels.

The ELN once before announced it would free Sanchez. But Santos said he was more confident it would follow through this time so that talks could start in Ecuador on Feb. 7. Five days before that, the ELN is to free Sanchez to a humanitarian mission led by the International Committee of the Red Cross while the government releases the two jailed ELN rebels, according to the agreement announced Wednesday.

“Simply put, if they don’t free him there will be no negotiations. That’s been a constant of my government,” Santos said. “But now we have an agreement, with specific dates.”

In a sign of the complications facing efforts to end the conflict, the FARC’s Southern Bloc on Wednesday said its forces had clashed on Jan. 10 with a dissident rebel band opposed to the peace process. Representatives of the FARC, the army and the U.N. were investigating the incident.