September 5, 2017 / 5:48 PM / 19 days ago

Colombia urges ELN rebels to turn over body of Russian hostage

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s government on Tuesday urged the ELN rebels to turn over as soon as possible the body of a Russian-Armenian hostage killed in April, while a commander with the guerrillas said they were in touch with the Russian embassy about the matter.

Arsen Voskanyan, 42, was seized by the rebels in northwestern Choco province in November. The group claimed he was collecting endangered frogs and accused him of wanting to smuggle wildlife overseas.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) is currently in peace talks with the government in a bid to end more than 53 years of war. The two sides, who are meeting in Ecuador, said on Monday they had agreed on a bilateral ceasefire starting in October and extending into next year, which includes a ban on kidnappings.

The ELN unit that had been holding Voskanyan told Reuters he was shot when he grabbed a hand grenade in an effort to escape. ELN leaders in Quito later confirmed his death.

“We are urging the (ELN) negotiators in Quito to facilitate the return of the Russian’s body to his family, the negotiators have been in touch with the embassy,” head government negotiator Juan Camilo Restrepo told journalists.

“They said they have given instructions and have the utmost willingness to return the body of the Russian citizen as soon as possible, I hope they fulfil it, quickly,” Restrepo added.

The ELN’s head negotiator, Pablo Beltran, said in Quito that Voskanyan had been buried and confirmed the group was in touch with the Russian embassy in Ecuador.

Colombia’s long and many-sided conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Paul Simao

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