The Colombian government on Friday began releasing hundreds of captured rebels, a unilateral move officials hope will prompt the release of 56 officials, politicians and other hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
However, FARC, the country's largest rebel group, has previously vowed not to reciprocate in a swap it called a "farce."
A first group of 120 rebels, including 13 women and a child, held by the government were transferred to a temporary holding place in Chiquinquira, 140km to the north, prisons director Eduardo Morales said.
"Their stay in Chiquinquira will be temporary, about one or two weeks," said Morales, adding another 80 were expected at Chiquinquira at the weekend.
In all, 250-300 imprisoned guerrillas from 50 penitentiaries around the country were to be massed at the holding place, the official added.
The first group of released prisoners emerged from a Bogota jail dressed in civilian clothes and bath towels covering their faces so as not to be recognized as they climbed into a waiting bus, refusing to speak to reporters.
The release was questioned by the opposition and some members of the governing coalition who noted that FARC rebels were getting something for nothing.
Could hurt morale
The coalition's Cambio Radical leader and likely successor to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, said that by making no demands on the rebels, the release order could "deal a blow to the morale" of the armed forces.
A Colombian government source said that rebel leader Rodrigo Granda, the FARC's "foreign minister," would be among those freed and would bring to France evidence to show French President Nicolas Sarkozy that prominent French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was alive.
Betancourt was seized while running for president in 2002.
"Granda has been authorized by FARC leadership to play the role of peaceful intermediary with the government and deliver proof of life for Betancourt and other persons being held," the source said on condition of anonymity.
Granada's attorney, Miguel Gonzalez confirmed that his client had "received a statement from the government to the effect that the government unilaterally had decided to release him from jail."
The government source added that President Uribe would announce the release of Granda yesterday.
In addition to convictions for sedition in Colombia, Granada is also sought in Paraguay on charges linking him to the 2004 murder of former Paraguayan president Raul Cubas' daughter, Cecilia.
Uribe last week, citing "reasons of state," announced that his government would release unilaterally by June 7 a large group of imprisoned guerrillas who belonged to the FARC.
"Uribe's proposal might in this way advance the search for the freedom of the hostages which are under the control of armed groups outside the law," said an official with the office of the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace.
Uribe has been under pressure to engage in a prisoner swap with FARC, which is holding among its hostages three Americans and Betancourt.
One hostage who managed to escape after eight years in captivity told reporters last month that he had seen Betancourt and the Americans, who were snatched while on an anti-drug mission, alive on April 28.