World

Colombia's ELN rebels free cash-transport helicopter crew but keep the money

Reuters

Colombia’s ELN rebels have freed three civilian helicopter crew members captured more than three weeks ago, the country’s high peace commissioner said on Sunday.

The men — Maxwell Joya, Carlos Quiceno and Julio Diaz — were taken hostage by the National Liberation Army (ELN) on Jan. 11, in the Hacari area of northeastern Norte de Santander province.

They appear to be in good health, the commissioner said in a statement.

The rebels said last month they had burned the helicopter and taken the nearly $550,000 in cash they found aboard. Local media reported the chartered helicopter was hired to securely transport the cash.

President Ivan Duque reactivated Interpol red notices, similar to an international arrest warrant, against ELN leaders after a car bombing in Bogota claimed by the group killed 21 police cadets in January.

Several of the group’s top commanders are in Cuba, participating in long-stalled peace talks with the government to end more than five decades of fighting.

The rebel leaders in Cuba have said they will not leave unless Duque complies with conditions agreed to by his predecessor for their return home in the case of a breakdown in talks.

Though the ELN claimed responsibility for the Bogota bombing in a statement, calling it a legitimate act of war, the negotiators said they had no prior knowledge of the attack.

The 2,000-strong guerrilla group, founded in 1964, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The ELN is believed to be holding 14 more hostages. Duque has repeatedly said talks will not begin again until all captives are freed.

Cuba previously hosted negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, which demobilized in 2017 and is now a political party.