Colombia's ELN rebels free hostage ex-mayor: Red Cross

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Colombia's ELN rebels free civilian hostage: Red Cross

Bogota (AFP) - Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the ELN, on Thursday released a former mayor it was holding hostage, as the country struggles to salvage a troubled peace process.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said leftist guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) had handed over the hostage in the remote city of Saravena, near the Venezuelan border.

The Colombian government's rights ombudsman later identified the man as former mayor Fabio Leon Ardila of the northeastern town of Charala. He was kidnapped on June 30 during a business trip to Saravena.

The Red Cross said Ardila, who was mayor from 2012 to 2015, was being transported to a reunion with family members.

The news came as the government sought to save a peace deal with a larger rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), that was narrowly rejected by voters in a referendum Sunday.

The shock vote result has left the government scrambling to save the deal, the product of nearly four years of negotiations.

The ELN hostage release will come as welcome news in what has been a terrible week for President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on making peace.

The ELN agreed in March to hold peace talks with the government, but Santos has said negotiations cannot begin until the group stops seizing hostages.

A source close to the guerrillas told AFP the release was negotiated in talks between ELN leaders and government officials in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, with a view to opening peace talks "soon."

"This type of action is partly the fruit of mutually respectful conversations (between the government and ELN), of a desire not to involve civilians in the conflict and prepare for a public phase" of negotiations, said political scientist Victor de Currea, an expert on the ELN.

It is unclear how many hostages the ELN is now holding, but official sources say there are at least two.

The Red Cross has facilitated the release of 13 rebel-held hostages so far this year.

The Colombia conflict has killed more than 260,000 people and left 45,000 missing over five decades, drawing in several leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.

The ELN, which was launched in 1964 to wage a Cuban Revolution-style uprising, today has an estimated 1,500 fighters.

The FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group launched the same year, has 5,765 fighters, it revealed as part of the peace process.