BOGOTÁ — Rebels belonging to Colombia’s National Liberation Army [Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, or ELN] on March 8 released two German tourists held in captivity since November 2012 in northeastern Colombia, near the country’s border with Venezuela.
The rescue was delayed by one day because of logistical difficulties in the region. However, with the Colombian military ceasing operations in the area, coordinates were given to a humanitarian commission that included the International Committee of the Red Cross, representatives of the German Embassy in Bogotá and Colombian politician Horacio Serpa.
“We are pleased that these two people are free again and we are pleased to have been able to provide our services to enable them to be reunited soon with their loved ones,” said Jordi Raich, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Colombia, reading from an official statement.
Uwe and Günther Breuer, 69 and 72 years old respectively, were first mistaken for spies by guerrillas belonging to the ELN’s northeastern front, which is headed by a rebel known as “Camarote.” Then the guerrillas accused them of being international contractors for state-run oil company Ecopetrol.
In fact, the brothers are pensioners who were enjoying a round-the-world trip — driving their 4x4 vehicle through various countries including Iraq, Iran and much of South America — before encountering problems near the Colombian border town of Teorama.
This area, located in the department of Norte de Santander, lies in a traditional coca-growing zone. The two retirees were first transported to the nearby town of Ocaña for a complete medical checkup before being debriefed in Bogotá and flown back to Germany.
The ELN tried to make excuses for its hostage-taking.
“In the weeks that they've been detained, they haven't been able to justify their presence in the territory,” the terrorists said in a statement issued last month. “For this reason, they’re being viewed thus far as intelligence agents and they will continue to be investigated.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shot back with a retort of his own.
“Who would think that two Germans are spying here in Colombia?” he said at the time. “This is an excuse no sane person would accept or even understand, because it’s a lie. There are no spies and we demand that they be freed.”
The Marxist-inspired ELN is the smaller of two insurgency groups fighting the Colombian government. The group has stepped up its policy of kidnapping and wrote on its website recently that it “protests the exploitation of sovereign mineral resources that the federal government is giving away to foreign companies.”
Analysts speculate that the ELN rebels have stepped up kidnappings to force the Santos government to include them in the peace talks now underway in Cuba with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The ELN, which has an estimated 2,500 combatants, still holds one other foreign national hostage. Jernoc Wobert, a Canadian citizen and employee of Geo Explorer, was captured in early January; two Peruvian colleagues were released in mid-February.