Colombia's ELN rebels pledge to free Canadian captive soon

BOGOTA Mon Jul 29, 2013 12:54pm EDT

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian rebel group the National Liberation Army said on Monday it would soon free a Canadian citizen it seized six months ago after his employer, gold miner Braeval, decided it would no longer mine in the area where he was kidnapped.

The smaller of Colombia's two insurgent groups, known as the ELN, said the mining company's decision "showed goodwill" and brings closer the release of geologist Jernoc Wobert, who was kidnapped along with two Peruvian and three Colombian colleagues in northern Bolivar province. The other captives were freed weeks later.

Toronto-based Braeval Mining told the government last week it would no longer explore in Bolivar. The company did not link the decision to Wobert's kidnapping, but the ELN had vowed it would free him only if Braeval give up its mining rights in the area.

"This demonstration of goodwill brings closer the liberation of its vice president of exploration, the Canadian geologist Jernoc Wobert, retained preventively by our guerrilla forces," the 2,000-strong ELN said in a statement.

Although the government's decade-long offensive against the ELN and its bigger rebel counterpart, the FARC, have improved safety for oil and mining workers in Colombia, Wobert's kidnapping shows that risks remain for companies doing business in the country.

The government is currently in talks with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to bring an end to five decades of war. The ELN has expressed interest in holding similar talks, but the government has said it must first free all captives, including the Canadian.

A report last week showed that more than 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict began.

The ELN has opposed oil and mining exploration in Colombian territory, arguing that foreign interests are drawing away too much of the nation's resources and damaging the environment at the expense of local interests.

The ELN and the FARC, both considered terrorist groups by the United States and the European Union, have battled a dozen successive Colombian governments since they were founded in 1964.

The ELN was inspired by the Cuban revolution and established by radical Catholic priests.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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