Colombian leader offers temporary troop pullout


Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 7

The government said on Tuesday it would temporarily pull its armed forces out of a town and surrounding area in southwestern Colombia if rebels agree to sit down for talks aimed at exchanging jailed guerrillas for hostages, including three US citizens.

A commission made up of officials from France, Switzerland and Spain suggested the troop withdrawal in a proposal sent to the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), earlier on Tuesday, President Alvaro Uribe told a news conference.

"We accept it because we want to understand the anguish, the pain, the suffering of so many Colom-bians who have family members who have been kidnapped," Uribe said.

The region that would be cleared of Colombia's armed forces -- some 180km2 -- is more than four times smaller than what FARC has demanded to be demilitarized as a condition for the talks.

Nonetheless, it is a concession by the government from its earlier stance. Both sides have said they support a prisoner exchange, but they so far have not agreed on conditions for talks that would iron out the details.

There was no immediate response from FARC, a 12,000-strong force that for more than four decades has been fighting the Colombian government for social revolution, but is also heavily involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom.

The commission was formed late last month in an attempt to bring the two sides together after three years of virtual stalemate on the issue. While the commission's identity had been kept a secret, Uribe on Tuesday revealed that it was made up of officials from the three European nations.

FARC wants to exchange 59 hostages -- including politicians, military personnel and three US Defense Department contractors -- for imprisoned guerrillas. The government has not said how many jailed rebels it would set free.

As well as no military in the area around Pradera, 270km southwest of Bogota, the European commission has called for the area to be free of FARC rebels, except for the negotiators, Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said.

He said the area would be demilitarized seven days prior to the talks and seven days after, but said the negotiators themselves would decide how long the talks would last.

France has long been pursuing secretive, unsuccessful efforts to secure the release of kidnapped Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was snatched by FARC while campaigning for presidential elections in 2002.

The captured US contractors -- Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell -- have been held since February 2003, when their small plane crashed in a rebel stronghold in southern Colombia while on an anti-drug mission.

Meanwhile, a Colombian court said on Tuesday that a top FARC commander was convicted in absentia for co-masterminding the 1999 kidnapping and killing of three US activists.

FARC military chief Jorge Briceno was sentenced to 39 years in prison for aggravated homicide, kidnapping for extortion and reb-ellion, a statement released by the Penal Court of Arauca said.