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Colombia to Hold Peace Talks With ELN Rebels


FILE - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a presidential address in Bogota, Oct. 10, 2016.

Colombia's government will begin much-delayed formal peace talks with the country's second-biggest rebel group the ELN on Feb. 7, after the guerrillas release a politician being held hostage, the two sides said on Wednesday.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) will release politician Odin Sanchez on Feb. 2, meeting a repeated government requirement, negotiators said in a joint statement in Quito, Ecuador near where the talks will take place.

President Juan Manuel Santos had said earlier on Wednesday that the talks would begin on Feb. 8. The statement said two ELN members will be released from prison in Colombia to participate in the negotiations.

The ELN will release Sanchez to the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has been captive for more than eight months.

"If he is not released, there will simply be no negotiation, That has always been the position of the Colombian government and my position," Santos told journalists in Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum.

The 2,000-strong ELN is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. The group has kidnapped hundreds of people over its 52 years to raise funds for the war and to use as bargaining chips with the government.

The talks are "a triumph," head ELN negotiator Israel Ramirez, better known by his nom de guerre Pablo Beltran, said. "We hope thousands of voices can join together to change Colombia."

Sit-down negotiations had originally been expected to begin on Nov. 3. Santos late last year concluded a peace accord with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group, after it was rejected in a shock plebiscite result in October.

The accord was voted down by a margin of just 0.4 percent.

Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict with the FARC. More than 220,000 people have been killed in Colombia's conflict, which has pitted leftist guerrillas against right-wing paramilitary groups and the security forces.

Founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba's 1959 revolution, the ELN has been in on-and-off preliminary talks with the government since 2014. The rebels have continued to bomb oil installations, but in recent months have released other captives.

Peace with the two groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in Colombia, also ravaged by violence caused by drug trafficking. But it may allow economic development and shift more resources to fight criminal gangs.