After a month in captivity, the ELN have released three of the nine hostages that had been in their custody.The three soldiers, who had been held in an ELN-stronghold in Arauca since August 8, were in plainclothes as they were photographed as free men. The country’s human rights ombudsman Defensoria del Pueblo confirmed the release of Orlando Yair Vega Díaz, Juan Pablo Rojas Ovando y Eduardo Caro Bañol on twitter.
#ATENCIÓN Fueron entregados a una comisión humanitaria compuesta por @Defensoriacol y @episcopadocol, los soldados Orlando Yair Vega Díaz, Juan Pablo Rojas Ovando y Eduardo Caro Bañol, en poder del grupo armado ilegal ELN desde el pasado 8 de agosto de 2018. pic.twitter.com/uVNylprUJH
— Defensoría delPueblo (@DefensoriaCol) 5 September 2018
The release indicates a thawing of relations on the part of the ELN, who remain one of the last remaining guerrilla groups in the country. The ELN rebels had previously spoken of their desire to continue talks in Havana–the seat of the negotiations–but the Colombian government has held a strong line against such talks, stating that the continued violent acts committed by the group would need to cease before any dialogue could begin.
President Duque acknowledged the ELN’s actions as “good news” but maintained that the remaining hostages need to be released to indicate that serious talks can begin between the two parties. “I continue to tell the ELN: If there is a genuine will to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate; here we are ready,” Duque said, “but Colombia requires a clear and forceful gesture that begins with the release of all the kidnapped and the suspension of all criminal activities.”
There are currently three policeman, two private contracters and a soldier that remain in captivity in Arauca. In addition to this there are an additional six civilians being held in Chocó. The ELN previously claimed they intended to release all of the Arauca hostages but, the two parties could not come to an agreement as to the security protocols that would allow for the handover.
The ELN have previously used extortion, kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure and narcotrafficking to maintain its strength in many regions throughout the country. Although they are considered one of the last remaining guerrilla groups, there remain offshoots like the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and dissident groups of the FARC that opposed the peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016. 2018 has also seen an increase in violence between the ELN and EPL that included a gun attack in Catatumbo that killed nine.
As a result of the growing hostilities, earlier this month Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offered to have Spain as the seat of talks with the ELN, though Duque declined the invitation. Today’s developments suggest that the terms of the negotiation are slowly materialising and that future talks may not be as improbable as many had thought it would be.