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Colombia's ELN guerrillas free two Germans hostages

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group on Friday freed two German men that the rebels had held since November, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

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The two were being transferred by helicopter from a jungle location to an airport in northeast Norte de Santander province, and handed over to the German Embassy and representatives of Colombia’s government, according to the ICRC.

The hostages had been held since November by the National Liberation Army, known as ELN.

The rebel group said in early February it had captured the two men in Catatumbo, near the border with Venezuela, and identified them as Uwe Breuer and Gunther Otto Breuer.

The ELN said initially it considered the two to be intelligence agents because they could not explain why they were in the area, but the German government said they were pensioners travelling through South America.

Late last month, Colombia’s government authorized a committee of civilians and Red Cross officials to travel to the area to talk to the guerrillas.

“I am very relieved that the two Germans are free again and are in the safe custody of the German Embassy. We have thereby achieved a good end to many weeks of anxiety and uncertainty for their families,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

“We hope they can return as soon as possible to their families in Germany,” Westerwelle said in a statement.

The ELN, founded in the 1960s by radical Roman Catholic priests inspired by the Cuban revolution, was close to disappearing in the 1970s but regained strength.

By 2002 it had as many as 5,000 fighters, financed by “war taxes” it extracted from landowners and oil companies, and is now believed to have about 3,000 fighters.

Security sources say the kidnappings may have been part of an effort by the ELN to press the government to include them in peace talks under way in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s largest rebel group.

The ELN has previously sought peace, holding talks in Cuba and Venezuela between 2002 and 2007. Experts say there was a lack of will on both sides to agree a final peace plan.

Additional reporting by Gareth Jones in Germany; Editing by Doina Chiacu