BOGOTA (AFP) – Leftist guerrillas in Colombia said Monday they will free a Canadian engineer who has been held hostage since January, in a potential boost for the country's peace process.
The National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help arrange guarantees for Jernoc Wobert's safe handover.
"In the coming days Canadian citizen Jernoc Wobert, vice president for exploration of the Braewal Mining Corporation, will be freed," the ELN said in a statement.
Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said Monday that the ELN statement was a sign of good will that could clear the way for peace talks with the country's second largest rebel group.
"With these positive signs of the handover of hostages, the possibility of dialogue with the group completely opens," he said.
The FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, has been in peace talks with the government since November, but President Juan Manuel Santos has refused to talk to the ELN until it releases all hostages.
Wobert, 47, was captured by guerrillas in northern Colombia on January 18 along with two Peruvians and three Colombians employed by the Toronto-based mining company.
The South Americans were freed a month later, but the ELN hung on to Wobert, demanding that the company give up its mining rights.
In late July, Braewal Mining announced that it was pulling out of Colombia because of "unfavorable market conditions," relinquishing its mining rights.
The ELN at the time welcomed the company's decision as a "gesture of goodwill" that would help clear the way for Wobert's release.
In announcing plans for the release, the ELN asked that an ICRC delegation be accompanied by the archbishop of Cali and the Jesuit superior in Colombia.
"We hope that this release operation is not impeded by government military forces, paramilitary or police," it said.
The government appeared eager to expand the peace process to include the ELN.
"If they free the Canadian,... we will begin negotiations almost immediately with the ELN," Santos said on August 1.
The development came as the government opened a new round of peace negotiations in Havana with the FARC, which has waged an insurgency since 1964.