BUCARAMANGA, Colombia - Armed rebels released 42 Colombian police and soldiers to a government peace envoy on Saturday, giving some of them their first taste of liberty in years and clearing the path for peace talks with the government.
After marching the captives out of a jungle hide-out, fighters from the leftist National Liberation Army, or ELN, released them to government peace envoy Camilo Gomez in the northern village of Convencion, a presidential statement said.
The captives appeared healthy and well-groomed in images shown on television. Some laughed and high-fived as ELN commander Felipe Torres, who was temporarily released from maximum-security prison to facilitate the event, read out their names.
''Colombians should realize that peace is possible, that it's possible to find avenues of reconciliation,'' Gomez said after the release.
The freed captives later arrived in nearby Bucaramanga, where diplomats, doctors, and family members had gathered to greet them.
The ELN is still holding six security force members, three of whom were to be released with the group of 42. The six are now expected to be freed in January, Gomez said.
Hopes were high that the pre-Christmas liberation of the captives would lead to peace talks with the nation's second-biggest rebel group and end their participation in the 36-year civil war.
''It's a good sign. It is an important deed by the ELN which shows their desire for peace,'' said Jorge Martinez of the National Conciliation Commission, a non-governmental mediation group involved in peace initiatives.
The unilateral release of the captives came after Gomez held talks in Havana with ELN commanders. He also reportedly met with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
The ELN was formed in the 1960s by disgruntled peasants, leftist priests and radical students who were trained in Cuba. Believed to have about 5,000 combatants, the ELN has suffered heavy military losses in recent years to government troops and an illegal right-wing paramilitary army.
But the ELN remains a constant irritant, blowing up oil pipelines and electrical towers, and carrying out mass kidnappings of civilians for ransom.
Some of the police and soldiers, captured during combat or rebel raids, have spent as many as three years in captivity.
President Andres Pastrana said the liberation of the captives would be a ''very important'' step and expressed hope it would lead to broad talks.
As an incentive, the ELN has been demanding a demilitarized zone in northern Colombia similar to one Pastrana granted Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
There appeared to be growing momentum that the government would accede, over the objections of many local residents and of the right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.
However, the granting of a demilitarized zone to the FARC as a peace incentive has produced no breakthrough in talks. The FARC has been criticized by Colombia, the United States and human rights groups for using the zone to oppress locals residents and to launch attacks elsewhere.
Also Saturday, rightist paramilitaries released three federal prosecutors after holding them for 24 hours.
The prosecutors had been investigating recent kidnappings allegedly committed by AUC members when they were grabbed by armed militia members Friday in the northern town of Mariquita, a spokeswoman for the Public Prosecutor's Office in Tolima state told the Associated Press.