Mon, Jul 20, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Colombian rebels turn down Uribe’s hostage proposal

REUTERS , BOGOTA

Colombian rebels on Saturday turned down a proposal from the government to unilaterally free 24 hostages held for years in secret jungle camps, saying the deal would have to be part of a prisoner swap.

Earlier this month, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe bowed to guerrilla demands that leftist Senator Piedad Cordoba help mediate the release of kidnap victims. Uribe authorized Cordoba on the condition that all 24 soldiers and police officers held by the rebels be freed at the same time.

A letter was released from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Saturday saying it was willing to free two of the hostages, but the rest would only be released as part of an exchange for guerrillas held in government jails.

The FARC letter, addressed to Cordoba and released to the media, says the Marxist rebel group is willing to negotiate a swap “that will permit the liberation of prisoners of war held by the state and by the guerrillas.”

Uribe, first elected in 2002, is popular for making Colombia’s cities and highways safer as part of his US-backed military crackdown on the 45-year-old insurgency.

He is unlikely to accept FARC’s terms, considering his longstanding position that the guerrillas must call a ceasefire in order to set the stage for any talks.

“Uribe wants to see the 24 released unilaterally. That is not likely to change,” said Leon Valencia, an expert on Colombia’s conflict and himself a former guerrilla.

One of the two soldiers the FARC said it is willing to free over the short term is Pablo Moncayo, held since 1997. His father has led a campaign for the release of kidnap victims, draping himself in chains and walking throughout Colombia.

Uribe, whose own father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping more than 20 years ago, could run for re-election next year if his supporters succeed in changing the constitution to allow him to campaign for an unprecedented third term.

While the cocaine-financed FARC is widely despised for its practice of kidnapping, Uribe’s popularity remains at about 70 percent despite a series of scandals linking some of his closest political allies to violent right-wing paramilitaries.

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