In April members of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas hijacked a domestic passenger flight with 41 people aboard. One person died while being held hostage, 24 were released, and the remaining 16 are still captive as of this writing. On May 30, the ELN abducted 167 people from a Catholic church service in Cali, Colombia's third largest city; and a few days later, nine members of a sports club who were fishing on a river near Barranquilla, the fourth-largest city, on the Caribbean coast. Currently, 45 people from the church kidnapping and all nine of the fishermen are still being held by the ELN.
The ELN may have stepped up its kidnapping activities and given them a higher profile to call attention to itself and its interests with respect to the peace process, and also to finance its operations. The current peace process focuses almost exclusively on the FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group. The government has granted the FARC control over a portion of land the size of Switzerland as a good-faith gesture, but has denied the ELN's call for a similar arrangement. Peace talks with the ELN have been halted since an unsuccessful preliminary dialog earlier this year in Caracas.
Though garnering the attention it may have desired, these attacks on the civilian population have also been condemned not only by the Colombian government, but also by the civilian population and the Catholic church. In June ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez was reported to have traveled to the Vatican to meet with Cardinal Darío Castrillón, formerly a Colombian bishop, and now a Vatican official. He reportedly told the prelate that 95% of the ELN's rank-and-file, estimated at 5,000 to 6,000, are Catholic. The ELN's former leader, Manuel Pérez, was a Spanish-born Catholic priest when he took up arms. Pérez died in February 1998.
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