FARC Release Two Hostages

News from Colombia | on: Saturday, 12 January 2008

Despite efforts by the Colombian regime to prevent such a release from taking place, two politicians held hostage by the FARC guerrilla group have been unconditionally freed by the rebels in an effort to galvanize support for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between the Colombian Government and the guerrillas. The proposal for an exchange has the support of broad sectors in both Colombia and internationally but to date the Colombian regime has refused to engage in talks with the FARC.

The most recent development occurred on January 10th when the FARC released former vice-presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former Senator Consuelo Gonzalez into the care of a special humanitarian mission sent by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The hostages were released to the Venezuelans due to fears that the Colombian military would attempt to sabotage the operation. Only a month previous the Colombian Army had wrecked a planned delivery of 'proof of life' videos.

Though the release had been scheduled to occur in late December the Colombian military successfully attempted to delay it. According to Consuelo Gonzalez the reason that she and Clara Rojas were not released before the New Year, as arranged, was that they were under heavy attack, including bombardment, from the Colombian armed forces. Thought both the FARC and President Chavez claimed this at the time the Colombian authorities denied that any military operations at all were taking place in the zone in questions.

"On December 21, we began to walk toward the location where they were going to free us and we walked almost 20 days. In that time, we were forced to run several times because the military operations were very close," said Gonzalez after her release. She also lamented that on the day that President Uribe of Colombia set as a deadline for the release, the Colombian armed forces launched the worst attack on the zone where they were located. "On the 31st, we realised that there was going to be a very big mobilisation and, in the moment that we were ready to be released, there was a huge bombardment and we had to rapidly relocate to another place."

The Venezuelan President has played a key role in trying to persuade the Colombian Government to enter into humanitarian exchange talks with the FARC, though in November, as Chavez was on the verge of winning the freedom of a group of hostages, President Uribe abruptly fired him from his role as a facilitator. As a result, relations between Colombian and Venezuela plummeted to their worst level in decades.

Despite the setback, Mr Chavez continued to work with the families of the hostages, as well as with other supportive governments (most notably the French), to bring about an exchange. After talks with the Venezuelan President the FARC agreed to free two of those they were holding as a sign of good will. The Uribe regime has not yet responded despite intense international pressure to do so.

The FARC currently hold around 40 Colombian politicians and military and police officers whom they have detained in recent years. The humanitarian exchange proposal aims would see the FARC release these detainees in return for the Colombian Government freeing imprisoned rebels. The exchange is widely seen as being the first step towards a wider peace process in Colombia.

In another development, three US Congressmen have asked to meet with the FARC in an effort to discuss the freeing of three US citizens - widely believed to be CIA agents - who the FARC are also holding. When and where such a meeting might take place is not yet clear.

In July 2007 Justice for Colombia arranged major events in London and Brussels to promote the idea of a humanitarian exchange in Colombia. Participants included family members of those being held by the FARC (including the mother of Ingrid Betancourt, the most high profile hostage), senior Colombian politicians and civil society representatives as well as the head of the Catholic Church in Colombia. Despite widespread support for the exchange in Europe, the British Government has still refused to give their backing to the proposal.

The last time such an exchange occurred was in June 2001 when the FARC released 242 soldiers that they had captured in combat in return for 21 guerrilla fighters that the government were holding. Since then, the Uribe regime has insisted that it will use military means to free those being held.

This policy is unpopular as detainees have repeatedly been killed in botched rescue operations. The most recent of these occurred in July 2007 when 11 politicians held by the FARC were killed in a military operation in the jungles of Valle de Cauca department in western Colombia.

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