By Richard McColl
BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) – In a strongly worded interview Monday, representatives of the ELN guerrilla group rejected President Juan Manuel Santos’ conditions for releasing all hostages and halting attacks on infrastructure before public peace talks can begin.
“What if we placed the condition that in order to continue the dialogues that all guerrillas have to be freed from prisons where they are being held in inhumane conditions and dying from lack of medical attention from the state,” said Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias ‘Gabino’, commander-in-chief of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The reaction by the ELN came in response to Santos’ demands made Friday that no public round of peace talks with the rebels would commence until the guerrilla group released all hostages in their power and ceased attacks on infrastructure.
Santos announced March 30 that the exploratory phase of talks with the ELN had come to an end and that formal dialogues would begin in Ecuador.
The ELN is believed to consist of 1,500 combatants while the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), currently involved in long-running peace dialogues with the government, number approximately 7,000 fighters.
“This only delays the start of conversations,” said Gabino. “And as we are agreed on the talks’ agenda, the sensible thing to do would be to take it as it has been agreed.”
While Santos has yet to respond, Colombia’s interior minister has spoken out regarding the ELN’s policy of kidnapping and recent attack on the Caño Limón — Coveñas oil pipeline.
“The margin for tolerance of Colombians towards these acts of terrorism is zero,” said Juan Fernando. “They cannot presume to continue kidnapping and think that Colombian society won’t be outraged.”
According to data provided by the Colombian NGO País Libre, which works to combat kidnapping, extortion and forced disappearances, the ELN has kidnapped 5,590 victims since 1986.
The Ministry of Defense claims that since that 1996 the group has kidnapped by the ELN at least 4,590 victims.