BOGOTA: The Marxist ELN rebel group must free nine hostages and stop all criminal activity if it truly wants a peace deal, new Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Friday.
The National Liberation Army (ELN), which has been in peace talks with the government for 17 months, is holding captive four soldiers, three policemen and two civilians who are contractors for the armed forces.
"As Colombia's president I will not accept that they intimidate us with kidnapping or that kidnapping becomes a mechanism to blackmail the Colombian state," Duque, who took office on Tuesday, said during a visit to the port city of Tumaco.
"If the ELN has a true desire for demobilization, disarmament and reinsertion, they should free those kidnapped quickly, without conditions," Duque added.
In a statement posted to its website on Friday, the guerrilla group said it was working to liberate those it kidnapped and that both Duque's government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which usually acts as a neutral party to facilitate hostage releases, were receptive.
To complete the releases it would be necessary to agree to a set of protocols, the ELN statement added.
"We hope that the operations of the state army that are taking place in the area of the detentions do not put the lives of those detained at risk or are meant to carry out a rescue by force," the rebels said.
Three policemen, a soldier and the two civilians were kidnapped eight days ago in western Choco province, while three soldiers were captured this week in eastern Arauca province.
The government and the ELN failed to reach a ceasefire agreement at the end of their sixth round of talks at peace negotiations in Havana last week.
Colombia has been at war with the 1,500-member ELN, which was founded by radical Catholic priests, since 1964.
Duque has said he will not continue negotiations if the group does not halt criminal activity like drug trafficking and move its forces to a defined area of territory.
Colombia's conflict between the government, rebel groups, paramilitaries and crime gangs has lasted more than 50 years, killing at least 260,000 people and displacing millions.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Helen Murphy and Richard Chang)