September 5, 2018 / 6:26 PM / 10 months ago

Colombia's ELN releases three hostages as Duque evaluates talks

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque leaves the polling station after voting in a seven-question referendum on anti-corruption measures in Bogota, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s Marxist ELN rebels have released three soldiers held hostage for nearly a month, the country’s human rights ombudsman said on Wednesday, as new right-wing President Ivan Duque evaluates whether to continue peace talks with the insurgents.

Duque has said the National Liberation Army (ELN) must free 19 hostages before he will resume dialogue. Duque said during his Aug. 7 inauguration that he would evaluate the talks, which began with his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos’ government in February 2017, over his first 30 days.

The last round of the talks, which were held in Cuba, ended on Aug. 1. The rebel group is believed to be holding six more members of the security forces in Choco province as well as 10 civilians.

“The soldiers Orlando Yair Vega Diaz, Juan Pablo Rojas Ovando and Eduardo Caro Banol, in the power of illegal group the ELN since August 8, 2018, were handed over to a humanitarian commission comprised of the ombudsman and the Episcopal Conference of Colombia,” the ombudsman said on Twitter.

The soldiers had been held in eastern Arauca province, near the border with Venezuela.

“If there is genuine will for demobilization, disarmament and reintegration we are ready, but Colombia requires a clear and convincing gesture which starts with the liberation of all those who are kidnapped and the suspension of all criminal activities,” Duque told journalists after a meeting with education officials.

In a series of posts on Twitter, the guerrillas urged the government to suspend military operations in Choco so that the hostages there could be freed.

The ELN, founded by radical Catholic priests, is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. It has waged a five-decade war against the government, engaging in bombings, kidnappings, extortion and sabotage of oil pipelines.

During a ceasefire from September 2017 to January 2018, the ELN suspended hostage-taking, attacks on oil installations, the use of landmines and the recruitment of minors.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brownand Leslie Adler

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