Odin Sanchez's release was a precondition for official peace talks to begin between Colombia's last active rebel group and the Santos government. A peace deal with the FARC is already being implemented.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) delivered former congressman Sanchez into the hands of the Red Cross in Choco, a western jungle region of Colombia on Thursday. The rebels fulfilled a promise made last month in talks with the government to free the prisoner in exchange for two jailed ELN leaders who were also released Thursday.
It was not clear whether a ransom was paid to secure Sanchez's release.
The completed exchange paves the way for delayed peace talks to start between the leftist rebel group and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. They are set to begin next week in Ecuador.
Though the ELN and the government have engaged in exploratory peace talks over the past three years, a move to begin formal negotiations stalled last year when the ELN announced they had taken Sanchez hostage.
Brother hostage swap
That Sanchez was a hostage at all testifies to brotherly love. He voluntarily went into captivity in April 2016 in order to replace his brother, Patrocinio, who had been held by the ELN for three years and had grown seriously ill while being held prisoner.
Patrocinio, who was waiting at the airport of Quibdo for Odin to arrive by helicopter, expressed relief at his brother's return.
"Finally this nightmare is over," Patrocinio told the AP news agency.
On Tuesday, the ELN announced they had taken a missing army soldier hostage but would be willing to release him as well.
Peace talks underway
The ELN was the last active rebel group in Colombia, with an estimated 1,500 members concentrated in the north and west of the country. Like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it began in 1964 and undertook murders and kidnappings over the course of the decades-long civil war, which led to the death of over 260,000 people and left over 60,000 missing.
Santos and the FARC are currently in the process of implementing a peace deal, for which the Colombian president received the Noble Peace Prize in 2016.
The freeing of Sanchez coincided with the opening ceremonies of the World Submit of Noble Peace Laureates in Bogota.
"Our number is always growing, those of use who believe in higher values. Values that do not divide but unify. Values that help to overcome conflicts rather than to perpetuate them," Santos told the assembled attendees and fellow noble laureates in his speech.
"What looked impossible we made possible," he added.
cmb/sms (EFE, AP, AFP)