BOGOTA Colombia's second-biggest rebel group, the ELN, freed a politician it held captive for almost 10 months on Thursday, meeting a government requirement for delayed peace talks with the group to begin.
The National Liberation Army released Odin Sanchez, 62, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which will accompany him on a flight to Quibdo, in northwestern Choco province, a government official told reporters.
President Juan Manuel Santos had conditioned talks with the 2,000-strong ELN, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, on it freeing hostages. The group has kidnapped hundreds of people over its 52 years to raise funds for the war and to use as bargaining chips with the government.
Talks in Quito were delayed in November pending Sanchez's release and a government pardon for two jailed rebels. Sit-down negotiations are now set for Feb. 7.
"We have complied and turned over Mr. Odin, we expect the same respect for his word from @JuanManSantos, may he hand over our pardoned," the ELN said in a tweet, referencing Santos.
The group later tweeted the two rebels had undergone a medical check and were released.
Santos signed a revised peace deal with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group last year, after voters shockingly rejected it last month because they felt it was too lenient on the Marxist rebels.
The FARC agreement was lauded internationally. Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize last month for his efforts to end the conflict.
More than 220,000 people have been killed in Colombia's long-running armed conflict.
Founded by radical Catholic priests and inspired by Cuba's 1959 revolution, the ELN has been in on-and-off preliminary talks with the government since 2014.
The rebels have remained active during that time, kidnapping and bombing oil installations, though in recent months they have released other captives.
Sanchez has been referred to as the group's last remaining hostage, but many suspect it still holds unreported captives.
The talks with ELN would likely mirror those held with FARC.
Peace with the two groups is unlikely to put a complete end to violence in a country also ravaged by unrest from drug trafficking, but would allow economic development in once off-limits areas and shift more resources to fight growing criminal gangs.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy; Editing by Alan Crosby)