Colombian guerrillas free Liverpool striker Luis Diaz’s kidnapped dad

Relatives celebrate the release of Luis Manuel Diaz 12 days after he was kidnapped by a unit of the ELN guerrilla group (STRINGER)

Colombia’s ELN guerrilla group on Thursday freed the father of Liverpool footballer Luis Diaz, ending a 12-day kidnapping ordeal and triggering celebration in his hometown.

After days of negotiations for the handover, the rebels presented Luis Manuel Diaz to humanitarian workers at an undisclosed location in the Serrania del Perija mountain range on the border with Venezuela.

The elder Diaz, 56, and his carers then traveled by helicopter to the city of Valledupar, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) from his hometown of Barrancas in northern La Guajira department — where he was abducted on October 28.

Exiting the helicopter, Diaz walked slowly and waved at reporters who were kept at a distance.

According to Monsignor Francisco Ceballos, a member of the group that received him, Diaz spent “four days walking when they detained him, and two days now that they were going to hand him over.”

When he was released he was “a little emaciated, tired, lame,” Ceballos said.

Earlier, as news of his release broke, relatives of the footballer and his father embraced tearfully in Barrancas where they were gathered to follow the events.

Diaz arrived hours later to neighbors celebrating with drums and trumpet music outside his home, which was under police guard.

In a message broadcast on Blu Radio, Diaz said he wanted to “thank all the people… for this great support they have given to my family. I love them very much, soon I will have the opportunity to greet them and give them a hug.”

In another video, Diaz is seen in bed with a bandaged right leg, thanking the military for his “quick” release.

His sister Aracelys Diaz told journalists the family was “happy,” though somewhat concerned about her brother’s condition.

“He is not as we would like, but he is fine. He is alive,” she said.

– A ‘mistake’ –

Diaz Sr. and his wife Cilenis Marulanda were abducted by armed men on motorcycles at a gas station in Barrancas nearly two weeks ago.

Marulanda was rescued hours later and a massive search operation by ground and air was launched for her husband, with more than 250 soldiers involved.

The Army withdrew its troops Monday under conditions imposed by the ELN for Diaz’s release.

“It was not a simple operation… A series of conditions had to be met and of course every hour that passed generated anguish,” government representative Ivan Cepeda told Caracol Television.

The ELN, which is in peace negotiations with the government and is party to a six-month ceasefire that entered into force in August, has described the kidnapping by one of its units as a “mistake.”

On Sunday, the 26-year-old footballer Diaz had begged the ELN on social media to free his father.

Liverpool welcomed the release Thursday and immediately named Diaz in their starting 11 against Toulouse in the Europa League, which the Colombian’s team lost 3-2.

– Trust broken –

The abduction threatened to derail high-stakes peace negotiations between the ELN and the government of leftist President Gustavo Petro.

Petro took office last August with the stated goal of achieving “total peace” in a country ravaged by decades of fighting between the security forces, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.

The president last week said the kidnapping had broken the “trust” between the parties.

And on Thursday, the government delegation to the peace talks said the ELN had caused “serious damage to the confidence of Colombian society in the possibility of achieving peace.”

Luis Manuel Diaz was the founder and amateur coach of the only football academy in Barrancas, where his son showed promise from a very young age.

Known locally as “Mane,” Diaz Sr. is credited with aiding the meteoric rise of the Liverpool and Colombia striker.

Acquaintances have told AFP he sometimes sold food he cooked himself to pay for his son’s trips to Barranquilla, the city where “Lucho” Diaz had his debut.

The younger Diaz has played for his country 43 times and is the first Indigenous Colombian to make it to world football’s top echelons.

The ELN, one of Colombia’s last recognized guerrilla groups, has some 5,800 combatants, and the government says it is present in more than 200 municipalities where fighting has displaced communities caught up in the violence.

More than 38,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia over the years, mainly by armed groups raising funds with ransom money.

In one of the most well-known cases, Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was held hostage by the now-disbanded FARC guerrilla group for six years before being rescued in 2008.

According to official data, the ELN still holds about 30 hostages.



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