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Colombia's hostage ultimatum sabotages peace talks, ELN rebels say

By Andrew V. Pestano
Colombia's National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group said the Colombian government is trying to sabotage peace negotiations by demanding its last hostage be released before talks commence. In this image are the members of the ELN's peace delegation: Bernardo Téllez, Aureliano Carbonel, Consuelo Tapias, Pablo Beltrán and Gustavo Martínez. Photo courtesy of ELN-Paz
Colombia's National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group said the Colombian government is trying to sabotage peace negotiations by demanding its last hostage be released before talks commence. In this image are the members of the ELN's peace delegation: Bernardo Téllez, Aureliano Carbonel, Consuelo Tapias, Pablo Beltrán and Gustavo Martínez. Photo courtesy of ELN-Paz

BOGOTA, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Colombia's National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group accused the government of attempting to sabotage peace negotiations by demanding its hostage be released before talks commence.

The Colombian government and the ELN rebel group were set to hold peace talks starting Thursday in Quito, Ecuador, that have been delayed since March. The process could end before it begins over the Colombian government's ultimatum the ELN release a hostage.

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Juan Camilo Restrepo, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' negotiator for the ELN talks, on Monday said if the ELN does not release its last remaining hostage, Odin Sanchez, the talks would be suspended.

"If Odin Sanchez isn't released safe and sound between now and Thursday, the conditions will not be in place to begin the public phase of the negotiations," Restrepo said.

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The ELN said Restrepo's ultimatum "torpedoes" the peace talks.

The brother of Sanchez, Patrocinio Sanchez, said he fears the ultimatum could put his brother in more danger.

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The ELN and Santos' administration said peace talks would be held between them after the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebel group earlier this month reached a historic peace deal, which was rejected by the Colombian people through a national vote.

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The ELN, like the FARC, began as a Marxist-inspired insurgency in the 1960s. It was never as large or as powerful as the FARC, but like the FARC, its members engaged in drug-trafficking, kidnapping and other illegal activity to fund their campaign against the government.

There are an estimated 2,500 ELN rebels living mostly in Colombia's rural, mountainous areas. More than 220,000 people have died and about 5 million have been internally displaced due to the Colombian conflict primarily attributed to the FARC since its founding in 1964.

Santos was recently awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end Colombia's 52-year conflict. Santos said negotiations with the ELN will not take into account the FARC deal and its rejection.

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