Colombia's ELN rebels free hostage, moving closer to talks

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) " Colombia's second-largest rebel group took another step in the direction of peace talks with the government by freeing a politician Thursday after holding him more than three months.

Fabio Ardila, a former mayor in eastern Colombia, was handed over to the International Red Cross by the National Liberation Army in the same area near the Venezuelan border where the rebels released a rice farmer a week ago.

President Juan Manuel Santos praised the release, saying it brings the two sides closer to initiating peace talks that were announced in March but have been frozen over the government's insistence that the group release all captives.

Ardila said that he hoped to deliver a message to the president sent by the rebels and that he hopes his release will clear the way for others held by the group to be reunited with family and loved ones.

"This ordeal is something I don't wish upon even my worst enemy," Ardila said, saying he lost considerable weight and suffered other health problems during his captivity.

The move comes as a peace deal with the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is in limbo following its shock defeat in a national referendum Sunday.

On Thursday, representatives from Santos' government and the opposition led by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, met for the first time to find ways to secure peace with the FARC after voters narrowly rejected the deal just days after it was signed in front of world leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The meeting produced no concrete results, but both sides described the environment as respectful and promised to continue their dialogue in the days ahead.

"We need to act quickly," Santos said. "If we extend these meetings and decisions for too long the peace process will break into a thousand pieces."

Ardila said he hoped to meet with Uribe and work to bring about peace with the FARC. He said that during his captivity he was accused of collaborating with the hard-line conservative Uribe because of a photo he had taken with the former president when running for mayor in the town of Charala in 2012.

"I'm very happy ex-President Uribe has changed. Dialogue is what the country most needs to achieve the peace all Colombians want," Ardila said.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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