A year after Colombian military agents disguised as international aid workers helicoptered Ingrid Betancourt and three US military contractors to freedom, an offer by their former leftist rebel captors to unilaterally free two hostages is in limbo.
Many blame Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who says “drop by drop” releases by the rebels end up being publicity stunts for “terrorists” that complicate military efforts to end the the country’s decades-long conflict once and for all.
As Colombia celebrates the daring Betancourt rescue of July 2 last year, the joy is not shared by the family of Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, a soldier captured by the rebels more than 11 years ago in an attack on a remote mountain outpost.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in mid-April it intended to free Moncayo. On Monday, it said it would release a second soldier with him.
But Uribe refused the FARC’s demand that Senator Piedad Cordoba, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, be present for any hostage handover. She has attended five previous unilateral releases of a total of 12 hostages since early last year.
“The president has to make this decision,” Cordoba said on Tuesday, telling reporters she was not publicly pressing Uribe because it “only makes him more uncomfortable.”
One of the last unconditional handovers by the FARC, in early February, was marred by military flyovers that peace activists who accompanied Cordoba termed harassment.
The government complained about Cordoba inviting a journalist along.
She alone accompanied the International Red Cross and a Brazilian helicopter crew on the next two handovers.
The FARC is wary of any hostage release that excludes Cordoba. In the rescue of Betancourt, the Americans and 11 others, one of the Colombian agents wore a Red Cross bib, violating international law.
The ruse consisted of tricking the hostages’ jailers — who are now themselves in jail — into believing an international humanitarian group was transferring them to a different FARC camp.
Uribe says he would only accept the International Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church as intermediaries.
“We don’t understand why exactly President Uribe doesn’t respect the life of Pablo Emilio,” said 22-year-old Yuri Tatiana Moncayo, one of the captive corporal’s four sisters.
Uribe has condemned previous releases as “political shows” meant to boost the image of the FARC, which killed his father in a botched 1983 kidnapping and whose defeat has been the cornerstone of his seven-year-old presidency.
“The president isn’t going to facilitate any unilateral liberation because he thinks that will boost the FARC’s political agenda and hurt the government,” political analyst Claudia Lopez said.
“It’s cruel, but that’s the way it is,” Lopez said.
The chief of Colombia’s armed forces, General Freddy Padilla, underlined that view on Wednesday, criticizing the rebels’ handling of hostage releases.
“They want to convert each hostage release into a prolonged two-month drama and this masks the true intentions and conduct of this criminal insurgency,” Padilla said in an interview.