March 20, 2016 / 6:23 PM / 2 years ago

Colombia's ELN rebels free soldier hostage

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s second-largest rebel group has freed a soldier hostage held for more than six weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Sunday, meeting a government condition for the start of peace talks.

The National Liberation Army, or ELN, released Jair de Jesus Villar to representatives of the ICRC and the Roman Catholic Church, the humanitarian organization said in a statement.

Villar was captured by the guerrillas on February 3 and was being held in rural Antioquia province.

The 2,000-strong ELN has been conducting exploratory talks with the Colombian government, but President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly said formal negotiations would not begin until Villar and a civilian hostage were freed.

Civilian Ramon Jose Cabrales, from eastern Norte de Santander province, has been held by the group for more than six months.

The Santos administration began peace talks with the larger FARC rebel group in late 2012.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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