Peace talks with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group are on hold until the rebels release a key hostage, President Juan Manuel Santos said Thursday.
In a statement, Santos said he’d ordered government negotiators not to travel to Quito, Ecuador, where talks had been scheduled to begin Thursday, until the National Liberation Army, or ELN, releases Odín Sánchez, a former congressman who has been held since April.
Even so, Santos suggested the government was “willing to advance in this process” as soon as the condition was met.
Late Thursday, the government’s chief negotiator, Juan Camilo Restrepo, said the Red Cross had initiated operations to retrieve Sánchez, but he did not provide a firm date for his release.
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The news is another setback for Santos, who has staked his presidency on trying to close peace deals with the ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
On Twitter, the ELN, thought to number between 1,200 and 1,500 fighters, said its delegates had been in Ecuador since Wednesday in preparation for talks and that they were complying with “all the conditions” set out by the government.
In an interview with Colombia’s RCN Radio, a spokesman for the group said that Sanchez’s captivity “should not get turned into noise that affects the beginning of negotiations.”
But the group didn’t say when he might be released.
Expectations have been building about the talks since March 30, when the guerrillas and the government announced they had reached a framework agreement for conversations. At the time, formal talks had been preconditioned on the release of all hostages.
On Oct. 10, after several detainees were released, the government announced talks would begin in Ecuador on Thursday.
The news comes as the administration is also trying to salvage a peace deal with the FARC. Voters narrowly rejected the initial agreement in an Oct. 2 vote, fearing it was too lenient on the group, which is considered a terrorist organization. Since then, the administration has been holding meetings with its critics and trying to tweak the deal.
The ELN was founded in 1964, the same year as the FARC, and combined Marxist-Leninist ideology with liberation theology. Some of its initial recruits came from the Catholic Church, including Camilo Torres, a charismatic priest who died in 1966 during his first battle.