Colombian rebels kidnap bishop as urge for peace talks

The National Liberation Army – Colombia’s smaller leftist guerrilla group- is ready to declare a cessation of hostilities if the government agrees to release its prisoners.
Colombia’s smaller leftist rebel group kidnapped a Catholic bishop on Monday, as its leaders reiterated their will to start peace talks. The National Liberation Army (or ELN) also promised to release bishop unharmed with a political message for hardliner president Alvaro Uribe, church officials confirmed to the local press.

According to reports, Misael Vacca Ramirez, the Bishop of Yopal, was travelling with the two other priests and the local mayor in the oil rich Eastern Casanare region on Saturday, when they were stopped by members of the ELN group. Vacca Ramirez is well known in Colombia as has been involved in the past in peace efforts between the government, leftist rebel groups and right win paramilitary bandits. That is the reason why is expected that the bishop would be released safely.

Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt said troops in the region have been searching for signs of the kidnappers. "We are very concerned by the news, but so far the search hasn't yielded results," Pretelt told reporters.

During the last months, the ELN have tried to obtain a positive answer from Alvaro Uribe to their offer to start peace talks. ELN high command has also contacted Congress authorities to support their three point’s offer, which includes an accord limiting the use of land mines, the release from jail of all ELN prisoners, and a bilateral cease-fire.

President Alvaro Uribe has said he is ready to suspend offensive operations against the ELN if the group first declares a cessation of hostilities. He has not publicly commented, however, on the demand for the release of prisoners. Hardliner Uribe is keen to reach a peace deal with the ELN, as have repeatedly failed in reaching an agreement with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, by far the largest rebel group operating in Colombia.

The ELN kidnapped eight foreign backpackers from northern mountains in September but released them several months later after church officials agreed to tour the area to investigate the plight of impoverished Indians.

The Catholic church is deeply involved in peace efforts in Colombia, However, over the past 20 years, an archbishop, a bishop, at least 50 priests and three nuns have been murdered. Dozens of others have been kidnapped by either rebel or paramilitaries. The ELN was blamed for the 1989 kidnap-murder of the Bishop of Arauca, Jesus Emilio Jaramillo, in the same region where Vacca Ramirez was taken.

Hernan Etchaleco

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