FARC Rebels Voluntarily Free 4 Colombian Hostages
By Dialogo February 02, 2009Colombia's badly battered FARC rebels freed three police officers and a soldier held hostage for more than a year, handing them over to the International Red Cross on Sunday in the country's southern jungles. A Brazilian military helicopter, emblazoned with the Red Cross insignia, retrieved the four hostages and flew them to a provincial airport in Colombia's eastern plains where they were met by relatives and peace activists with hugs and white daisies. But their handover was marred by accusations that Colombia's military interfered. A reporter who was on the chopper, Jorge Enrique Botero, said the military hounded and delayed the mission by more than two hours with numerous flyovers. Analysts consider the unconditional releases, the guerrillas' first in nearly a year, a goodwill gesture. However, chances for a peace dialogue with Colombia's government remain far off, and Sunday's alleged military interference was only apt to complicate matters. Captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2007, the four security-force members freed Sunday are among six hostages the FARC pledged to liberate unconditionally this week. The other two, the only Colombian politicians believed still in rebel hands, have been held far longer. The Western Hemisphere's last rebel army has sought the overthrow of successive Colombian governments for 45 years, seeking to impose a leftist regime that they say would redistribute land more equitably. Colombia's U.S.-backed military has seriously weakened the rebels in the past two years, killing top commanders, compelling hundreds of desertions with hefty rewards and forcing the rebels into virtual radio silence with sophisticated surveillance. In a bloodless ruse on July 2, Colombian military agents posing as members of an international humanitarian mission rescued 15 hostages, including Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors. The FARC announced this week's releases on Dec. 21 in response to a plea from Colombian intellectuals. President Alvaro Uribe, however, has resisted FARC attempts to negotiate a prisoner swap, and last month accused the rebels of "deceiving the country with talk of peace." He has frequently been at odds with the opposition lawmaker who helped engineer this week's releases, Sen. Piedad Cordoba. She is a close ally of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. FARC commander Alfonso Cano, meanwhile, has refused to renounce kidnapping, a key political and fundraising tool for the rebels. The guerrillas' main revenue source is the cocaine trade. As Red Cross members picked up the hostages Sunday, the guerrilla commander who released them told the Venezuelan television network Telesur that the military killed a rebel in his unit earlier in the day. The government's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, did not directly deny the allegation, but said, "We are accustomed to the lies of the FARC." Restrepo did deny the military had interfered, however, and called Botero's allegations to that effect "baseless." He said authorities honored an agreement with the Red Cross for no military flights beneath 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) during the liberation. Botero, an independent journalist and author, did not say how high he thought the planes were flying but he called the flights "notorious, abundant and repetitive." "They were flying in circles. There were several types of airplanes conducting the flights and this of course caused enormous nervousness, not just among us but also among the people of the FARC," he said at the Villavicencio airport where the hostages were greeted by relatives. Sunday's releases were greeted with hope, but also considerable skepticism. "This is movement. It's a step forward. But it's not enough. All the hostages need to be released," Democratic Rep. James McGovern, of Massachusetts, told the AP. A critic of Uribe's human rights record who has been active in efforts to spur peace talks with the FARC, McGovern said he also is frustrated by the rebels' intransigence. On Monday, the rebels are to hand over former provincial Gov. Alan Jara, 51, who was kidnapped in July 2001. Former provincial lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez, 45, is to be released on Wednesday. He was grabbed in April 2002 during a daring rebel raid on a state assembly in western Colombia. The FARC's last previous unilateral release was of six politicians handed over to Venezuelan representatives in January and February of 2008. It is not clear how many hostages the FARC still holds, though the government says they currently include just one foreigner, a Swede named Roland Larsson kidnapped in May 2007. At least 22 soldiers and police continue to be held by the FARC as bargaining chips.