FARC Free Remaining Military Hostages

News from Colombia | on: Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Piedad Cordoba of Colombians for Peace

Piedad Cordoba of Colombians for Peace

The FARC has unilaterally freed the last 10 military prisoners it holds following negotiations facilitated by Colombians for Peace (CfP). The release of the ten men, 6 police and 4 soldiers, has opened up expectations that a dialogue aiming at peace could now begin between government and guerrillas, with one Bishop, Ruben Salazar Gomez, stating that “the unilateral liberation is a first step necessary to begin a process of dialogue and agreement.” However, President Santos stated that “only the government” would decide when the conditions for peace had been met.

The hostages were seized during the late 1990s when the FARC overran several military bases, taking dozens of troops and police prisoners in the process. Some of the men had been held for 14 years, but appeared in good physical condition when released.

The release was brokered by Colombians for Peace, who have been campaigning for the FARC to release their hostages, and who have negotiated previous unilateral releases. This last release was announced by the FARC in December 2011, but was delayed by initial government refusal to allow neutral, foreign participation.

This was a problem since previous liberations had been subjected to military bombardments which narrowly missed killing the hostages, and rescue attempts that ended in disaster. In November 2011 another release effort ended in tragedy when the FARC executed 4 hostages during a rescue attempt by the Colombian military. The government later denied that it had carried out a failed rescue. Colombians for Peace then suggested that wealthy Colombians could pay for the helicopters, but this too was rejected. Eventually in early 2012, the government U-turned and agreed to the participation of Brazilian helicopters and crews.

The hostages were released in the settlement of Mocuare, on the Guaviare river shortly after 16.30 on Monday afternoon. The liberations have been greeted with jubilation in Colombia, and as a ‘gesture of peace’ by many national and international organisations, with Mark L.Schneider of the International Crisis Group in Washington stating that “At very least it’s a first step that one should attempt to follow up with other actions on both sides.” Former Senator Piedad Cordoba of Colombians for Peace said that “we have achieved this through dialogue, and we achieved it without a drop of blood being spilled, we achieved it with respect and because we recognised one another.” The releases are the latest gesture from the FARC, who in January made it clear that they are keen to begin peace talks with the government.

President Santos stated that the liberations were “an important step” but that it was “not enough.” Previously Colombian governments, including that of President Santos have insisted on “clear signals” that the FARC want peace, including the release of the hostages as a precondition to any talks. Santos is now calling on the FARC to release their civilian captives. According to Colombian government officials the FARC holds up to 25 civilians, with other NGOs alleging that they hold around 400 for the purpose of extortion or for resisting FARC taxes. The FARC is estimated to carry out a third of the kidnappings in Colombia.

In recent weeks an issue concerning FARC prisoners arose, with the Government’s refusal to allow an international commission to visit guerrilla prisoners held by the state. The Colombian government has rejected any inspection of prison conditions for the approximately 1,000 prisoners. Guerrilla prisoners, in much the same way as the thousands of political prisoners (trade unionists, students, peasant leaders etc), are held in overcrowded conditions, deprived basic human rights, and subjected to brutal and dehumanising treatment. Several are alleged to have been tortured and denied medical treatment while in captivity. Piedad Cordoba of Colombians for Peace has said that the organisation will continue to insist that CfP be allowed to visit the prisoners.

Piedad Cordoba also stated that there “is still much to do in Colombia”, referring to the many thousands of disappeared, the continuing occurrence of ‘false positives’ and mass displacements. Congressman Hernando Hernandez, the indigenous representative in Congress has called on the Colombian government to allow the international commission to visit the prisoners, calling it “the first step in search of dialogue.” Colombians for Peace have also called for a 90-day ceasefire as a prelude to talks.

However, while Colombian civil society and public opinion back peace talks, the government has sent contradictory messages on whether it will pursue negotiations or continue to pursue a military outcome to the conflict. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. officials say the Colombian military mainly wants more helicopters, sophisticated aerial surveillance aircraft, unmanned drones and assistance in fusing intelligence collected from different sources.” The US is also to provide more advisers down to brigade level to assist the Colombian army in its counter-guerrilla war, using their experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet President Santos maintains that peace is “a Colombian problem that will be resolved by Colombians”, rejecting Latin American efforts to broker a peaceful solution.

The war in Colombia has been going on since the late 1940s, with the FARC in existence since 1964. Last year conflict analysis NGO ‘Corporacion Arco Iris’ released a report that showed that despite massively increased US military aid, the war had returned to pre-2002 levels of intensity, with FARC attacks increasing in number and intensity, and entering new areas of the country. Some 500 Colombian soldiers are killed each year, with another 2,000 or so maimed or injured. FARC casualties are difficult to calculate, but between 500 -3,000 are estimated to die each year. According to the Indepaz NGO, paramilitary groups are active in over 400 municipalities across the country and according to victim’s testimonies, they often operate alongside government forces.

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