Colombian rebels to free 6 hostages, urging swaps

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 25, 2012 4:18 PM
Colombian rebels to free 6 hostages, urging swaps

By Helen Murphy

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A Colombian FARC rebel commander named six military and police captives the group pledged to free in the coming weeks and proposed a constitutional change to allow the exchange of jailed guerrillas for hostages.

Ivan Marquez, in a video released on Wednesday, called the upcoming release "an act of peace." The bearded commander, wearing olive-green fatigues and seated at a desk in what he said were the mountains of Colombia, is a member of the drug-funded group's seven-member governing secretariat.

The video was the latest in a series of peace messages from the nearly 50-year-old Latin American insurgent group since troops killed its leader late last year, and as President Juan Manuel Santos comes under pressure to seek an end to the war.

The six captives are some of the 11 members of the armed forces that the FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - has held for more than a decade. It also holds about 300 civilians.

"The families of the prisoners of war want their loved ones to come home alive," Marquez said in his first recorded statement since 2007, when he appeared alongside Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas.

The group has suffered heavy military defeats in the past decade as a U.S.-backed offensive hampers its ability to move easily across the Andean nation and a spy network helps the government capture or kill FARC commanders.

"It's not right that this group, which conducts terrorist acts and criminal activities like drug trafficking, continues to play with people's lives, with hostages ... with families, and then it puts on a publicity show, a political show," Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said in a statement.

"This makes no sense and has no justification."

Colombia has continued to deal blows against the FARC's leadership and ability to operate since the U.S.-funded offensive began a decade ago, but its guerrillas have changed tactics by fighting in smaller, more elusive units.

Marquez called on President Juan Manuel Santos to alter the constitution by obliging the government to free hundreds of captured FARC rebels in exchange for military and police hostages the group holds in jungle camps.

"While the conflict continues, prisoner of war swaps should become a constitutional norm, one which obliges the state to comply," Marquez said.

"The unilateral liberation of these six prisoners of war is an act of peace, which contradicts the talk from those who require acts and not words from us, while they are silent before the complete absence of such gestures by the state."

PRESSURE ON SANTOS

Santos is facing increased pressure from Colombians to seek an end to a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more over the decades.

The former defense minister has pushed through a range of reforms looking to address some of the structural issues of the conflict such as giving back land stolen by illegal armed groups to their displaced peasant owners.

Military strikes have severely weakened the rebels and improved security has attracted billions of dollars in foreign direct investment, especially in the oil and mining sectors.

The FARC, however, remains a formidable threat in parts of the country and the conflict strips as much as 1 percent of gross domestic product growth from the economy each year.

Among FARC prisoners Marquez named as part of a possible swap was Simon Trinidad, the highest-ranking rebel prisoner, who was jailed in the United States for kidnapping three U.S. military contractors who were rescued in 2008.

He also mentioned alias Sonia, considered one of the group's most successful traffickers, also extradited to the United States.

The FARC wants Santos to revive the agenda from failed peace talks more than a decade ago when then President Andres Pastrana gave the FARC a safe haven, known as Farclandia or "FARC Land," to promote talks.

Rebels took advantage of the military absence then to train fighters, build more airstrips to fly drugs and create prison camps to hold hostages.

Santos has rejected negotiations based on that process and has made it clear he will not consider talks unless the group frees all its hostages, stops attacks on military and civilian targets and gives up its arms.

"Obstacles for a negotiation are immense and have an appearance of being insurmountable," conflict analyst Ricardo Correa Robledo wrote recently in an op-ed article.

"The government doesn't want missteps that may affect it enormously in political terms, especially facing re-election in 2014, and the FARC because a negotiation defines their existence and they fear disappearing without getting any benefits and assuming very high costs."

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Jack Kimball and Eric Walsh)