Colombia's ELN rebels say Duque conditions for peace talks 'unacceptable'

Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during a workshop "Building country" in Amaga, Colombia, September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Fredy Builes

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s ELN rebels said on Monday that President Ivan Duque’s conditions for the continuation of peace talks, including that the guerrillas release all hostages, were “unacceptable”, but that they intended to free captives anyway.

Duque, who took office last month, has said the group must free a total of 19 hostages before peace talks begun by his predecessor in 2017 can resume. He said at his Aug. 7 inauguration he would take 30 days to evaluate whether to continue the negotiations, but has yet to announce a final decision.

The Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) released three soldiers last week in eastern Arauca province, but is believed to be holding another six security force members in Choco province on the Pacific, as well as 10 civilians.

The liberation of hostages is not one of the pre-conditions for talks agreed at the start of negotiations, the ELN said, nor is the concentration of rebel forces in a single area, which Duque has also repeatedly floated as a condition of further dialogue.

“By not recognizing the deals made with the state and adding, unilaterally, unacceptable conditions, this government is closing the negotiating table, ending the process of dialogue and the efforts made over several years by the ELN, society, the previous government and the international community,” the group said in a statement posted on its website.

The ELN is committed to liberating the remaining hostages, the statement added, despite military involvement it said had complicated the hand-over of hostages.

“As soon as we find a way to overcome the intense military operations in Choco, we will achieve these liberations,” the rebels said.

The government’s High Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos told local Caracol Radio that the previous government of former president Juan Manuel Santos had also required hostage liberations from the ELN. He added that Duque’s government will not allow violence to be used as a political tool.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Helen Murphy and Nick Zieminski