In a possible reversal from past intransigence, a rebel leader said Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla group was willing to release some 60 hostages, including three US citizens, in exchange for scores of jailed rebels.
Raul Reyes, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the rebel group had "all the political will" to negotiate a humanitarian exchange, according to a partial transcript of an interview on Thursday with Venezuelan based Telesur.
In past months, the FARC had rejected out of hand any negotiations with President Alvaro Uribe, whose beefed-up military has kept the 12,000-strong insurgency on the run for the last four years.
But Uribe's re-election by a landslide in May could force the FARC to re-evaluate its position.
For a humanitarian exchange to take place, Reyes said, the government must "provide sufficient political guarantees free of traps and deceptions."
It was unclear whether Reyes' comments represented a change in the FARC's position or were just verbal posturing, as he said the FARC would welcome a peace agreement but continued to insist on preconditions for talks that Uribe has in the past found unacceptable.
Key among those conditions is the withdrawal of troops from two southern provinces over 100,000km2 in size.
"The FARC won't accept talks under the table, in private, outside the country or any place in Colombia with this government until these areas are demilitarized," said Reyes.
Colombia's vice president Francisco Santos promised to study Reyes' comment in detail but cautioned about reading too much into his words.
"A complex process like this requires prudence -- it can't be handled with declarations before microphones," Santos said.
Peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo would be delegated with the task of verifying the sincerity of Reyes' offer, he added.
Other observers were hopeful Reyes' comments indicated a change of strategy for the rebels.
"There's a new climate prevailing over potential talks now," said Reverand Dario Echeverri, part of a Roman Catholic church-citizen peace commission.
The FARC is believed to be holding as many as 60 so-called political hostages, including three US defense department contractors who were captured in February 2003 after their small plane crashed into a rebel stronghold while on an anti-drug mission.
The government has for months been trying to secure the hostages' release as a confidence-building first step toward a more comprehensive peace agreement.
But its latest proposal, which was backed by the governments of Spain, France and Switzerland, has so far been ruled out by the FARC.
"It's Alvaro Uribe who has to decide whether he wants to continue with his policy of war or approach the FARC with a serious offer of peace," said Reyes.
Responding to a popular clamor for peace, Uribe has said an agreement with the FARC is a priority.
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