A leader of Colombia’s smaller rebel group has been released from prison today in hopes that he will be able to persuade his fellow guerrillas to hold peace talks.
Francisco Galan, a commander of the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, walked out of Itagui prison outside the city of Medellin and said he was personally committed to seeking peace.
“Today I leave (prison), willing to risk my life to achieve peace and justice in Colombia,” the bearded Galan, wearing a black suit and red tie, told reporters outside the prison fence.
“I declare that consultations between the ELN and society have now been opened.”
The government gave him a three-month furlough in hopes of initiating a peace process with the 3,500-strong ELN, which has been battling a succession of elected governments in this South American nation for four decades.
Galan will remain under the watch of police during his time away from prison as he seeks to hold talks with other ELN leaders, government officials, delegates from the international community and members of civil society. His base will be a so-called peace house in Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took office three years ago with a promise to bring the Cuban-inspired ELN and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to their knees on the battlefield, or force them to negotiate peace.
Earlier today, Foreign Minister Carolina Barco said Venezuela, Brazil and other countries she did not name have offered their support for possible peace talks with the rebels.
Galan, who is serving a 30-year sentence for rebellion, terrorism and kidnapping and has been in prison for 13 years, said he remains committed to the ELN.
“I confess my militancy in the ELN forever, because we are not terrorists, we are fighters for peace and freedom,” he said.
Galan has been allowed out of prison at least three previous times, to attend international peace conferences and to speak before the Colombian Congress and meet with government officials in hopes of spurring peace talks. Those efforts failed.
Analysts say Uribe is feeling pressure from opposition groups and the international community to talk peace with the leftist rebel groups now that he’s immersed in a peace deal with outlawed right-wing paramilitary factions, created two decades ago to wage a dirty war against the rebels.
The FARC has spurned Uribe’s appeals to begin peace talks, insisting the rebels first be granted a large demilitarised zone in Colombia, which Uribe has refused.
More than 3,000 people are killed in the war each year.