Colombia Rebels Free Kidnapped Lawmaker

Seeking to jump-start peace talks with the government, Colombia’s second-largest Marxist rebel group on Tuesday freed another hostage seized in the hijacking of a commercial airliner 17 months ago.

Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels handed over Juan Manuel Corzo, a congressman who represents the ruling Conservative Party, to members of a commission led by former presidential candidate Horacio Serpa. The ad hoc panel was summoned to retrieve Corzo from a war zone in the country’s northern Bolivar province.

Corzo was one of four hostages still being held since April of last year, when ELN gunmen commandeered an Avianca airlines commuter plane moments after takeoff from a provincial capital and forced it to land near one of the rebel army’s jungle strongholds.

The ELN has demanded ransoms for some of the kidnap victims. But most of the plane’s original 41 passengers and crew were freed last year. One died, while in captivity, of what the ELN described as heart failure.

Corzo, who complained of a knee injury in a telephone interview with the RCN television network, said he was in good shape.

But he dodged a question of whether a ransom had been paid for his freedom, saying only that “there are certain matters that depend on other parties.”

Appealing for the release of the remaining hostages, two of whom are women, Corzo said all were suffering from low morale.

“I wouldn’t wish this on any Colombian,” he said.

Nearly two years after the government launched slow-moving negotiations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), no date has been set for opening peace talks with the ELN.

But President Andres Pastrana has clearly warmed to the ELN’s call for negotiations and government representatives held preliminary yet inconclusive talks with the smaller rebel force in July in Geneva.

Before then, Pastrana had put negotiations with the ELN on the back burner largely because of the hijacking and ELN abduction in May 1999 of around 160 worshippers from a Catholic church in the southwest city of Cali.

Tuesday’s release of Corzo followed a meeting in Paris on Monday between Pastrana’s peace commissioner, Camilo Gomez, and the ELN’s No. 2 commander, Antonio Garcia.

The officials also met with mediators from Cuba, Spain, Norway, Switzerland and France who plan to pay a fact-finding visit to Colombia in a few weeks time, France’s Foreign Ministry said.

About 3,000 abductions were reported in Colombia last year, most blamed on the country’s entrenched guerrillas who use ransoms to help bankroll an uprising that has taken more than 35,000 lives since 1990.