Colombia's ELN rebels hopes to free hostage next week


Bogota (AFP)

Colombian rebel group ELN said Friday it hopes to free hostage ex-congressman Odin Sanchez next week, clearing the way to begin peace talks with the government.

"We hope it will be in the coming week," said Pablo Beltran, the chief peace negotiator for the National Liberation Army (ELN), in comments to Caracol Radio.

He said a "humanitarian commission" including international mediators, government and rebel negotiators, and representatives of the Catholic Church had been set up to oversee Sanchez's release.

President Juan Manuel Santos's government had been due to open peace talks with the ELN, Colombia's second-largest rebel group, on October 27.

But he called them off when the rebels failed to release Sanchez, which he had set as a pre-condition.

Beltran said there had been "two differing interpretations" of the two sides' deal on opening talks.

Potentially complicating matters further, some sources say the ELN is still holding at least two other hostages: a doctor named Edgar Torres and a businessman named Octavio Figueroa.

Beltran said the rebels had "very few" remaining hostages.

"They are so few that these cases will be resolved sooner rather than later," he said.

Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, has faced a series of recent setbacks in his efforts to bring "total peace" to Colombia after a 52-year conflict.

Voters rejected a peace deal with the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in an October 2 referendum after opponents jeered it as too soft on the guerrillas.

And the talks with the ELN are on hold over the hostage issue.

Both the FARC and ELN have used ransom kidnappings and drug trafficking to finance themselves over the years.

Founded in 1964, they are the last two leftist guerrilla groups involved in a messy, multi-sided conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.