The cousin of Liverpool soccer star Luis Díaz told CNN on Friday that his family is relieved and “really thankful for all the support from the entire nation,” following the release of Díaz’s father by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group on Thursday night.
Díaz Sr. was abducted along with his wife, Cilenis Marulanda, by ELN gunmen on October 28 in his hometown of Barrancas, northeastern Colombia. Marulanda was rescued later that day, but Díaz Sr. was handed over just under two weeks later to a mixed commission of UN personnel and Catholic priests on Thursday in nearby city Valledupar.
A few hours later, he was received by his relatives and friends at the Díaz family home in Barrancas.
Luis Díaz’s cousin, Jose Brito Díaz, spoke with CNN by phone from Barrancas, saying it was a moment of celebration for the entire family and the town at large.
“Of course, we are really thankful for all the support from the entire nation, and all the people of Barrancas. We thank God for coming to our rescue: at the hour most needed, God responded,” Brito Díaz said.
Talking about his uncle’s condition and the ordeal he experienced over the last two weeks, Díaz said: “He’s, of course, very tired. He’s in good health but needs a lot of rest now. He was kept on the move and had to walk a lot along forests and uneven terrain with the guerrillas, we are just happy he’s with us and we want him to rest.”
Brito Díaz described the moment his uncle was taken to the UN offices upon landing in Valledupar as “the greatest relief” and said his cousin followed the operation via videocall from Toulouse, France, where he started in Liverpool’s 3-2 Europa League defeat to Toulouse FC on the same day.
In an emotional press conference on Friday, Díaz Sr. denied that any ransom had been paid for his release.
He told reporters he intends to remain in his hometown of Barrancas and continue his work with the football school and charity foundation run by the family.
“My wish is to remain in Barrancas, here is where my family is, my dad is here, I buried my mother here, and I thank the Government for the security guarantees they have provided. I trust it will be safe for me to remain in my town,” he said.
“We are all brothers, [the guerrillas] are also our brothers from the mountains. I call upon everyone to pause and reflect. Let’s start a dialogue so that Colombia can finally be a country of peace.
“It won’t take one or two years, but maybe in three or four, Colombia can be at peace. Let’s drop our weapons and use pens and notebooks to talk to each other,” the elder Díaz, who used to teach at the local school in Barrancas and is affectionately known in town as ‘The Professor,’ told reporters.
Díaz Sr.’s abduction and subsequent release generated renewed attention over kidnappings in Colombia.
A few hours after the release, the Colombian Ombudsman’s office, in charge with overseeing the protection of civil and human rights, released a statement calling for an end to ransom kidnappings in the country, stating that at least 79 Colombians have been kidnapped in the year so far.
This week, the ELN central command acknowledged that kidnapping the father of one of Colombia’s most popular soccer stars had been “a mistake,” but the group appeared to defend the tactic of ransom kidnappings to finance their armed struggle.
The guerrilla group, Colombia’s oldest still in operation, signed a ceasefire with the Colombian government in August but remains committed to armed insurrection around the country.
On Friday, the Colombian Football Federation announced that Díaz had been selected to represent the national team in its upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Paraguay.
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