Colombia City: The Colombian government is due to open talks Thursday with the country`s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), but a down-to-the-wire hostage dispute has kept the nation in suspense.
The talks -- if they happen -- will open a new front in President Juan Manuel Santos`s efforts to bury an armed conflict that has burned for more than half a century and killed more than 260,000 people.
Santos, the winner of this year`s Nobel Peace Prize, has already signed a peace deal with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But voters rejected it in a referendum on October 2, sending the two sides back to the drawing board.
That has only complicated the peace process with the ELN, a more intransigent negotiating partner.
The ELN had promised to free its hostages before the talks opened in the Ecuadorian capital Quito -- as the FARC did before starting negotiations in Cuba in 2012.
But the ELN bristled last week when the government`s chief negotiator issued an ultimatum to do so.
Since then, there has been no news on the fate of the hostage -- or hostages, according to some sources -- still being held by the leftist guerrillas.
That has cast uncertainty on the talks, even as the ELN said its peace negotiators were on their way to Quito.
"Have a good trip," the rebel group wished them on Twitter Wednesday, announcing the delegation would be led by commander Pablo Beltran.
The talks -- the fifth attempt to make peace with the ELN -- are due to open at 5:00 pm (2200 GMT).Like the FARC, the ELN formed in 1964 and is blamed for killings and kidnappings during a messy, multi-sided civil war.
The ELN is still holding at least one hostage, former congressman Odin Sanchez.
Colombia has "reasonable confidence" that the guerrilla group will release Sanchez, according to Juan Camilo Restrepo, the government`s chief negotiator.
"We have reasonable confidence because it is the spirit and good faith that encourages the government to start these dialogues," Restrepo said Wednesday on an evening news program.
If Sanchez is not released, the process "cannot open because the government`s condition has been very clear and we do not see why it cannot be fulfilled appropriately."
Sources in the Catholic Church, which has played a part in preliminary negotiations, say the rebels are also holding a doctor named Edgar Torres.
A church spokesman said Tuesday that moves were underway to free Sanchez in time.
"All the protocol is being observed and the proceedings are on track," said Dario de Jesus Monsalve, the Catholic archbishop of the city of Cali.
But the Red Cross, which usually facilitates hostage handovers in Colombia, said Wednesday that no such operation was under way.Analyst Camilo Echandia of Colombia`s Externado University said the ELN was reluctant to accept the release of hostages as a condition for talks.
"That is the big difference between the ELN and the FARC," he told AFP. "These negotiations are going to be very complicated."
Incidents involving ELN forces have kept tensions high in recent months.
The Colombian army blamed the ELN for a non-fatal explosion at an oil pipeline near the Venezuelan border on Sunday.
"The ELN guerrilla group comes strengthened to the negotiations with the government. Over the past three years this group has increased its level of violence," Colombia`s Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC) said in a report this month.
Colombian authorities estimate the ELN currently has some 1,500 members. The army says hundreds have deserted or been captured in recent months.
Its activities are restricted mainly to parts of the north and west of the country, according to CERAC.
Like the FARC, the ELN funds itself largely through drug trafficking and ransom kidnappings.
Colombia`s territorial and ideological conflict has drawn in various guerrilla and paramilitary groups, drug gangs and state forces over the decades.
The conflict has forced nearly seven million people to flee their homes, according to Colombian authorities.