Wed, Nov 21, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Colombia sets deadline for prisoner swap with FARC


The Colombian government on Monday set a deadline next month for efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to secure a prisoner swap with the country's main guerrilla group.

The news by Colombia's peace commissioner coincided with the Venezuelan leader's arrival in France to discuss his mediation efforts with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has also been pushing for the exchange.

Dual Colombian-French national Ingrid Betancourt -- seized in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while campaigning for president of Colombia -- is the best-known hostage and has become a cause celebre in France.

By setting the deadline, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's government indicated a diminishing patience with what many Colombians see as a public spectacle by the Venezuelan president.

Chavez's mediation efforts included a Nov. 8 meeting in the Venezuelan capital with a top FARC commander.

The Colombian peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, said in reading a brief communique on Monday evening that Chavez and Uribe had discussed a limit for a prisoner swap during this month's Ibero-American Summit in Chile.

"President Uribe told President Chavez that this mediation process should have a time limit, and President Chavez was in agreement," Restrepo said.

"The government today thinks the limit should be the month of December," he said, without explaining the decision or saying whether Chavez had been consulted. Restrepo's comments did not provide a concrete date as deadline, but the wording suggested it was the end of the year.

After arriving in Paris on Monday, Chavez said that during his meeting with Uribe in Chile the Colombian leader said he would be willing to meet with Chavez and the top FARC commander, the septuagenarian Manuel Marulanda.

Restrepo said Uribe was only disposed to meet Marulanda if the FARC releases all its hundreds of prisoners -- not just the 45 high-profile hostages including Betancourt and three US defense contractors.

FARC rebels killed Uribe's rancher father in 1983 in a botched kidnapping and the Colombian president has tenaciously attempted to defeat the peasant-based guerrilla army with an unprecedented US-backed military buildup.

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