BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's No. 2 rebel group on Tuesday freed a Canadian mining executive it kidnapped in January and whose release the government had demanded as a condition for opening peace talks.
Gernot Wober, 47, was freed in the turbulent northern state where he was seized Jan. 18 while visiting a gold-mining camp at a concession his company had purchased and was exploring.
The National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, had demanded Wober's employer halt exploration at the Snow Mine property in Sur de Bolivar state, claiming the land was stolen from local communities. Last month, Braeval Mining Corp. said it was pulling out of Colombia.
Wober, the Toronto-based company's vice president for exploration, was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Francisco de Roux, in a jungle rendezvous and flown by helicopter to the steamy Magadalena River city of Barrancabermeja.
He was to continue on to Bogota, said Red Cross country delegation chief, Jordi Raich. He said a Red Cross doctor examined Wober and "it seems he's in good shape."
TV images showed Wober in dark pants and a green short-sleeved shirt on the Barrancabermeja airport tarmac. He did not speak to reporters.
De Roux said by phone that the operation went off without a hitch and that Wober reported that "he had had to walk a lot but was treated well."
Immediately following Wober's kidnapping, Colombia's army had said it was close on the heels of the rebel band that held him.
A Braeval company spokesman, Chris Eby, would not say whether a ransom was paid for Wober. He did say, however, that the company was very relieved
"Gernot does have a wife and a young child, and we have every expectation that they want to be united as quickly as possible," Eby said.
The ELN's commander, Nicolas Rodriguez, said in a statement posted on the group's website that Wober's release was "a humanitarian act."
"We hope this effort will contribute to a healthy exchange and contribute to peace in Colombia," he said, adding: "We want to underscore that our message with this successful outcome shows that negotiated solutions to conflicts are possible."
Wober was the only foreigner known to be held by a Colombian rebel group.
The biggest rebel movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced last year that it was ending ransom kidnapping in what turned out to have been a condition for peace talks launched in Cuba in November. The FARC, whose estimated 8,000 fighters make about three times more numerous than the ELN, freed its last known foreign captives in November. It had held the four Chinese oil workers for 17 months.
There have been at least two past frustrated attempts to negotiate peace with the ELN.
It was formed in 1964, the same year the FARC was born. Both are an outgrowth of rural peasant movements that sought a more equitable distribution of Colombia's land.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.