Colombian rebels say they will free Canadian hostage

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Colombian leftist guerrillas said Monday they will free a Canadian engineer they have been holding hostage since January, in a potential boost for the country's peace process.

President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed the news, saying it was the right step toward starting peace talks with the rebel National Liberation Army, or ELN.

The ELN, Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help arrange guarantees for the safe handover of the engineer, Jernoc Wobert.

"In the coming days Canadian citizen Jernoc Wobert, vice president for exploration of the Braewal Mining Corporation, will be freed," the ELN said in a statement.

Santos said he had given instructions to facilitate the release.

"It is a right step, in the right direction, to begin dialogue with an eye to seeking peace in this country," he told reporters.

The FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, has been in peace talks with the government since November. But Santos has refused to talk to the ELN until it releases all the hostages it is holding.

Wobert, 47, was captured by guerrillas in northern Colombia on January 18 along with two Peruvians and three Colombians employed by the Toronto-based mining company.

The South Americans were freed a month later, but the ELN hung on to Wobert, demanding that the company give up its mining rights.

In late July, Braeval Mining announced that it was pulling out of Colombia because of "unfavorable market conditions," relinquishing its mining rights.

The ELN at the time welcomed the company's decision as a "gesture of goodwill" that would help clear the way for Wobert's release.

In announcing plans for the release, the ELN asked that an ICRC delegation be accompanied by the archbishop of Cali and the Jesuit superior in Colombia.

President Santos said he would give instructions for the two men to participate in the operation.

"Let us hope that citizen regains freedom as soon as possible," the president said.

The government appears eager to expand the peace process to include the ELN. "If they free the Canadian... we will begin negotiations almost immediately with the ELN," Santos said on August 1.

The development came as the government opened a new round of peace negotiations in Havana with the larger FARC, which has waged an insurgency since 1964.