Colombia rebels say Canadian hostage release closer

A Colombian guerrilla group indicated Monday it may be getting ready to free a Canadian engineer it has been holding hostage since January.

The ELN, or National Liberation Army, praised the "goodwill" of Canadian company Braeval Mining Corporation, where Jernoc Wobert, 47, was employed, for recently abandoning its rights to its mining area in northern Colombia.

"This gesture of goodwill draws closer the release of vice president of exploration and geologist Jernoc Wobert, who was preventively detained by our guerilla forces," the ELN said in a statement.

The guerrillas, who last week took note of the Canadian miner's decision to pull out of the country, did not say when or how they will release Wobert.

"We maintain our decision to find a negotiated decision and we hope the problem can be solved soon so that the Canadian can be returned to his family's arms," the ELN said in the statement, published Monday on its website.

Braevel Mining said last week it was giving up mining rights in Colombia because of "unfavorable market conditions, and plans to refocus its efforts on its other projects" but did not mention Wobert.

Wobert was abducted by ELN rebels in January along with two Peruvians and three Colombians also working for Toronto-based Braeval Mining, which has been prospecting for gold and silver in northern Colombia.

The South Americans were released a month later, but the ELN -- the smaller of Colombia's two leftist rebel groups -- has held onto the Canadian.

ELN warned Monday that the government had begun a "military deployment" in the department of Bolivar "to search for and rescue the Canadian geologist."

President Juan Manuel Santos, who has held peace talks with FARC, Colombia's largest guerilla group, has said he is interested in starting a dialogue with ELN.

But the government has insisted that any talks would be conditioned on the group releasing hostages and abandoning the practice of kidnapping. ELN has rejected the conditions.

ELN has approximately 2,500 members and has also stated on numerous occasions its intention to begin dialogue with the government.