Colombia’s ELN guerrilla group freed the father of Liverpool footballer Luis Diaz Thursday, ending a 12-day kidnapping ordeal and triggering celebration in his home town.
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 and his carers then traveled by helicopter to the northeastern 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.
On exiting the helicopter, Diaz walked slowly, and waved at reporters who were kept at a distance.
“Long live Freedom and Peace,” President Gustavo Petro wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Aracelys Diaz, the freed man’s sister, told journalists the family was “happy” though somewhat concerned about his condition.
“He is not as we would like, but he is fine. He is alive,” she said.
Relatives of the footballer and his father embraced tearfully in Barrancas as news of his release broke where they were gathered to follow the events.
Diaz Sr. and his wife Cilenis Marulanda were abducted by armed men on motorcycles at a gas station in their home town 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 Petro’s government and is party to a six-month ceasefire that entered into force in August, has described the kidnapping by one of its units a “mistake.”
On Sunday, Diaz had begged the ELN to free his father and urged international organizations to intercede.
“Every second, every minute our anguish grows,” the 26-year-old star wrote on social media.
Liverpool welcomed the release, saying on X: “We are delighted by the news of @LuisFDiaz19 ‘s father’s safe return and we thank all those involved in securing his release.”
– Trust broken –
The abduction threatened to derail high-stakes peace negotiations between the rebel group and the government.
Petro, a former urban guerrilla himself, 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 said last week the kidnapping had broken the “trust” between the parties.
And on Thursday, the government delegation to the peace talks said the ELN actions caused “serious damage to the confidence of Colombian society in the possibility of achieving peace.”
Luis Manuel Diaz — aged 56 according to local media — 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 with football club Junior.
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.
On Sunday, he saved Liverpool from a shock defeat at Luton, scoring a header that resulted in a 1-1 draw.
Shortly after his father’s release was announced, Liverpool named Diaz in their starting 11 to face Toulouse in the Europa League in France the same day.
The ELN, Colombia’s last recognized guerrilla group, has some 5,800 combatants.
Official data shows it has a presence 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 groups raising funds with ransom money.