FRESH hope has been sparked for Luis Diaz's father as the Colombian military withdraws troops from the area surrounding the guerillas' jungle lair.
The ELN rebel group kidnapped the Liverpool star's mum and dad at gunpoint in Colombia nine days ago.
They then insisted on "security guarantees" from the army before freeing Luis Diaz's father from their terrifying clutches.
On November 2, the guerilla group had promised to release Luis Manuel Diaz, 58, but demanded their requests be met before they would let him go, including guarantees of their safety.
The ELN pledged to "keep their word" – but accused the government of complicating things with the response triggered by the kidnap.
They swamped areas including the Perija Mountains near Barrancas in Diaz's home region of La Guajira with elite police and soldiers.
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The latest demand appeared to confirm speculation the hostage-takers are concerned for their own safety if they hand the Liverpool player's dad over.
Now Colombian military forces have cut down their efforts in the area, pulling out troops, in a renewed effort to bring him home safely.
The National Army are still maintaining a smaller presence near the guerrilla lair.
ELN chiefs released their new pledge after Diaz broke his silence about his dad’s kidnap.
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Diaz posted an emotional message on Instagram urging the group to release him "immediately".
The 26-year-old said: "This is not Luis Diaz the player speaking. Today it is the son of Luis Manuel Diaz speaking.
“Mane, my dad, is a hard-working family man, the pillar of our family and he’s been kidnapped.
“I ask the ELN for the prompt release of my father, and I ask international organisations to work together for his freedom.
“Every second, every minute, our anguish grows. My mother, my brothers, and I are desperate, distressed, and without words to describe what we are feeling.
"This suffering will only end when we have him back home.
“I beg you to release him immediately, respecting his integrity and ending this painful wait as soon as possible.
“In the name of love and compassion, we ask you to reconsider your actions and allow us to have him back.
“I thank Colombians and the international community for the support received, thank you for so many demonstrations of affection and solidarity in this difficult time that many families in my country find themselves experiencing.”
The ELN, which says a regional unit called the Northern War Front kidnapped Luis Manuel from Barrancas last Saturday, responded with a statement signed by the unit’s leader Commander Jose Manuel Martinez Quiroz.
It said: “On November 2, we informed the country of the decision to release Mr. Luis Manuel Díaz, father of the player Luis Díaz.
"From that date, we began the process to accomplish this as soon as possible. We are making efforts to avoid incidents with government forces.
“The area is still militarised, they are carrying out flyovers, disembarking troops, broadcasting, and offering rewards as part of an intense search operation.
“This situation is not allowing for the execution of the release plan quickly and safely, where Mr. Luis Manuel Díaz is not at risk. If operations continue in the area, they will delay the release and increase the risks.
“We understand the anguish of the Díaz Marulanda family, to whom we say that we will keep our word to release him unilaterally, as soon as we have security guarantees for the development of the liberation operation.”
Amid the desperate and ongoing search for Diaz's dad, the footballer netted a dramatic 95th-minute equaliser against Luton on Sunday evening.
He lifted up his Liverpool shirt afterwards, in his first game since the kidnapping, to display a message that said in Spanish "Freedom for Papa."
His mum Cilenis Marulanda was also abducted near the couple’s home alongside her husband but was freed hours later as the police and army hunt for their captors kicked in.
Yesterday morning she fought back tears as she urged the kidnappers to release her partner.
Marulanda made her impassioned plea as she took part in a second march to demand Luis Manuel Diaz’s freedom.
She said, with her eyes closed before breaking down and being embraced by a relative beside her: “I want them to release him now, that the people who are keeping him free him now back to me, because we want to have him back home.”
The heartbroken mum wore a T-shirt with her husband’s face printed on it under the message: “Your family is waiting for you."
It comes amid reports the ELN planned the kidnapping for at least five months.
ELN members had put Luis Manuel Diaz under surveillance to study his routine, Colombian outlet Semana reported.
They would work out the times he left home and returned, the places he visited, and the friends he frequently visited.
The group then decided to pounce nine days ago and abducted Luis Manuel Diaz and his wife.
CCTV footage showed the Díazes being followed by men on motorbikes as they left their home and stopped off at a petrol station.
Two men on motorbikes threatened them with a gun and one of them got into Luis Manuel’s vehicle to take a route they had “planned previously” to avoid a rapid police response, Semana said.
They quickly released Marulanda before cops closed in.
ELN commander Antonio Garcia wrote on the group’s Telegram, referring to Luis Diaz by his nickname of Lucho and admitting the Northern War Front had his father: “The retention of Luis Diaz’s father by the Northern War Front was an error.
“Lucho is a symbol of Colombia – that is how we in the ELN feel about him.”
Colombian authorities have offered a reward of $200,000,000 Peso (£40,600) for Diaz's dad's return.
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Despite earlier speculation that he could have been smuggled across the border in Colombia, Colombian police say Luis Diaz’s dad is still in the country.
Police and soldiers are continuing to hunt for Luis Manuel Diaz across areas on Colombia’s border with Venezuela, and sniffer dogs have also been involved in the operation.
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