Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 7 News List

FARC hostage release hopes dashed

AP , BOGOTA

Three Americans held hostage by leftist rebels will be released only if government troops withdraw from a large swathe of southern Colombia, a high-ranking guerrilla said on Tuesday.

A day after being freed in a bid to revive a stalled prisoner swap, Rodrigo Granda also rejected Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's attempt to promote him as a peace mediator without the recognition of the country's main rebel group.

Granda's comments, made in a nine-point statement at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Episcopate in Bogota, seemed to dash hopes for any immediate release of some 60 hostages, including three US military contractions who were captured when their small plane crashed in a rebel stronghold in 2003.

"Any role, as modest as it may be, must be defined by the secretariat of the FARC," said Granda, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Uribe released Granda from jail at the urging of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who hopes the man known as the rebels' "foreign minister" can engineer the release of another prominent hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen.

Uribe said he hoped Granda and another 180 rebels he plans to free in the coming days would mediate a humanitarian exchange to free the hostages, some of whom have been held for a decade.

The FARC has rejected the overture and ordered its jailed members not to accept release, calling Uribe's gesture "a trick."

Granda, even while thanking Sarkozy for his release, criticized Uribe for trying to benefit politically from the gesture.

"If Uribe accepted voluntarily the request for my release by France, then he should have acted accordingly without resorting to political games and blackmail in an attempt to vanquish the FARC's fighters," Granda said.

Granda said the only hope for a prisoner swap would be for the government to withdraw its troops from an 800km2 zone in two districts in southern Colombia.

"The imperative right now is the humanitarian exchange, which only will be possible demilitarizing Pradera and Florida," he said.

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