Colombia: Talks Stall on Release of Hostages Held by E.L.N

Article excerpt

Among the numerous tragedies resulting from the decades- long Colombian conflict is the plight of hundreds of civilians who have been kidnapped by armed groups and held for months, and in some cases, years. Negotiations to free seven foreigners being held by the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) broke down just as success seemed assured.

Four Israelis, a German, a Spaniard, and two Britons were seized while visiting the archeological ruins at Ciudad Perdida in the northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. One Briton, teenager Matthew Scott, managed to escape by jumping from a high ravine during a forced march, and he has since been reunited with his family in Great Britain.

The other hostages are Israelis Beni Daniel, Ortaz Ohayon, Ido Joseph Guy, and Erez Altawil; Spaniard Asier Huegun Etxeberria; Briton Mark Henderson; and German Reinhilt Weigel.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe reportedly offered to temporarily free ELN leader Francisco Galan from prison to help facilitate the hostages' safe release.

The UN said it "took seriously" the ELN's announcement to free the hostages. "We have been informed of the ELN's proposal to free its seven foreign hostages starting next week" with its sole condition being the presence of the commission, a UN spokesperson told the press.

Church attempts to mediate release

Luis Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, archbishop of Medellin, who was authorized to negotiate with the ELN by the Colombian government, said that the group planned to release the hostages one by one, starting with Huegun, a Spaniard from that country's Basque region.

In mid-October, the ELN had announced that it would release Huegun alone, provided that politicians and media came from Spain, Galan was freed, and the Colombian military--which had been searching for the hostages--suspended operations in the area. Uribe rejected the demands, and Huegan's release was called off.

Archbishop Giraldo announced the proposed release after talks with Galan, who was being held in Itagui prison just outside the city of Medellin. The archbishop said the hostages would be handed over to a commission made up of priests from the Catholic Church, a representative of the UN, and two guerrilla commanders, Galan and Felipe Torres. Afterwards, Galan would return to prison.

Giraldo said the ELN's Comando Central decided to free the tourists as a "gesture for the future" of the country. "The ELN accepted the proposal of the church to free the foreigners in their power," he said.

In exchange for freeing the hostages, Giraldo said that the government had agreed to send a humanitarian team to visit the Sierra Nevada area, 1,000 km from Bogota, where the hostages were taken, to look into the plight of impoverished people who live there.

In a communique issued two weeks after the tourists were kidnapped, the ELN said it had seized them to raise awareness of what it claimed was the suffering of the mainly Indian inhabitants of the region. …