BOGOTÁ — Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) released Canadian mining engineer Gernot Wober on Aug. 27 after holding him captive for more than seven months.
Wober, vice-president of exploration for Toronto-based Braeval Mining, was taken hostage Jan. 18 by ELN guerrillas in the department of Bolivar, about 380 miles north of Bogotá. The rebels captured him with two Peruvians and three Colombians; the others were freed a month later.
The ELN, with an estimated 1,500 combatants, is the smaller of the two terrorist groups engaged in a long-running conflict with the Colombian government (the other is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC).
Wober’s liberation came one month after Braeval announced it was ending all mining operations in Colombia. Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, commander-in-chief of the ELN — which has long opposed the presence of foreign multinational firms in Colombia — had insisted that “natural resources of all nations are for the common good.”
Nosori, the area where Wober was kidnapped, is rich on minerals and precious metals including gold. The ELN is believed to gain most of its income here through the extortion of both legal and illegal mines. In April, it demanded that Braeval return properties which had been “stolen from the traditional mining communities.”
Santos: ‘A step in the right direction’
Following Wober’s release, the ELN’s Rodríguez Bautista said “we hope that this gesture contributes to peace in Colombia.” And President Juan Manuel Santos hailed it as “a step in the right direction.”
The ELN has long sought to be included in peace negotiations taking place in Cuba for the past year between the government and FARC rebels. Santos had suggested on various occasions that he’d consider talking with the ELN, but only after it released Wober.
Wober was released near the location of his kidnapping after 222 days in captivity. He was promptly handed over on coordinates provided by the ELN’s Darío Ramírez Castro front to a humanitarian delegation that included members of the International Red Cross and the Catholic Church. Officials then took him to nearby Barrancabermeja for a flight to Bogotá, where Canadian authorities met him at the airport.
“We would like to thank the Colombian government for its perseverance and resolution to respond to this incident and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help facilitate his release,” said Chrystiane Roy, spokeswoman for Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
So far this year, Colombian police have reported 178 kidnappings, with 17 of these attributed to the ELN. Earlier this year, the ELN mistakenly kidnapped two German pensioners traveling near the border with Venezuela, believing them to be employees for a multinational firm. They were later released unharmed.