Colombia's ELN guerrillas say will release Canadian hostage in days

BOGOTA Mon Aug 19, 2013 9:30pm EDT

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's ELN guerrillas said on Monday they would release in the coming days a Canadian geologist they had kidnapped in January, a step the government has set as a pre-condition before it considers inviting the rebel group to peace talks.

Jernoc Wobert was seized by the ELN or National Liberation Army in Bolivar province in the north of the country along with two Peruvian and three Colombian miners all contracted by the Toronto-based gold mining company, Braeval Mining Corp.

The five colleagues were later freed but Wobert was retained.

"In the coming days, the Canadian citizen Jernoc Wobert, vice-president for exploration of the mining company Braeval Mining Corporation will be freed," the rebel group said in a statement posted on its website.

Braeval told the Colombian government in July it had decided to abandon plans for gold exploration and mining projects in Bolivar department by not exercising rights it had been granted by the government. The ELN had said it would only free Wobert if the company gave up its mining rights. Braeval did not link its decision to the ELN's demand.

The ELN asked in its statement that the International Committee of the Red Cross oversee Wobert's release together with the government and a delegation from the Catholic church.

The smaller of two Colombian guerrilla groups, the ELN has expressed interest in taking part in peace negotiations the government has been holding with the group's larger counterpart, the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, since last November.

President Juan Manuel Santos said the ELN must first release all its hostages, including Wobert, before peace talks separate from those being held with the FARC, could begin. He welcomed the ELN's announcement on Monday.

"I celebrate the ELN's decision. This is a decision I consider correct, to initiate dialogue with a view to seeking peace in this country," he was quoted as saying in a statement from the presidency.

"I have given instructions to facilitate this liberation," he said separately on his Twitter account.

The guerrilla groups, which have been fighting the government for five decades, oppose the presence of international mining companies in the Andean nation, alleging the wealth they extract does not benefit locals sufficiently and harms the environment.

But guerrilla attacks on oil pipelines were as frequent as one every two to three days in 2012, causing serious pollution due to the spillage of crude oil.

The ELN currently has about 2,000 combatants compared with about 8,000 FARC fighters. Both organizations are listed as terrorist groups by the United States and European Union.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Additional reporting by Monica Garcia; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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