Colombia’s ELN says it killed Russian hostage; risks peace talks with government

Colombia’s ELN says it killed Russian hostage; risks peace talks with government

Colombia’s ELN says it killed Russian hostage; risks peace talks with government Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group said a Russian-Armenian citizen it held hostage for six months was killed in April while trying to escape, a startling admission that risks throwing current peace talks with the government into jeopardy. 

In a rare interview, a commander of the ELN, Colombia’s last active guerrilla group, said that ransoms from kidnappings were necessary to keep its fighters in the field and that peace would be impossible without state funding to feed and clothe the rebels.

The ELN seized Arsen Voskanyan in November. The group claimed that he was collecting endangered, poisonous frogs in the jungles of the northwestern department of Choco and accused him of wanting to smuggle wildlife overseas. 

After his lengthy captivity, Voskanyan was shot when he grabbed a hand grenade in a bid to escape, according to the ELN commander, who would only give his nom-de-guerre Yerson. 

“He’s dead,” Yerson told Reuters in a remote area along the banks of a river that sees frequent combat between the leftist rebels, government troops and right-wing paramilitaries.

“The grenade exploded ... several of our boys were wounded, the entire unit of five boys. He fled, he was shot and killed ... The issue of his body will be negotiated,” he said, adding that the death took place within his unit. Yerson supplied no evidence to back up his assertions.

Another person with knowledge of the matter also subsequently confirmed that Voskanyan had been killed. 

Reuters could not independently confirm the circumstances surrounding Voskanyan’s death.

Colombia’s government said it knows nothing of the ELN’s claim and the last it knew was a statement from the ELN that said he had escaped.

“The responsibility is with the ELN,” the senior official said, asking not to be named.

The Russian Embassy in Colombia, Colombia’s High Peace Commissioner and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The ELN’s practice of kidnapping civilians is a key issue at peace talks taking place in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. The fact that Voskanyan was killed as talks progress and the ELN failed to inform the government may complicate already tricky negotiations to end 53 years of war and make the need to agree a ceasefire more pressing.

Talks with the ELN are being held as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), until this year the biggest rebel group, has demobilized, formed a new political party and ended its part in a civil war that killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over five decades.