Dim hope for Colombia hostages

2010-03-31 11:47

Florencia - Sergent Pablo Emilio Moncayo's family waited 11 years for Colombian rebels to decide to let their prisoner go. Then came an anxious year of waiting for it to actually happen.

Now that the guerrillas have freed two captive soldiers - the first such move in more than a year - it appears families of other Colombians still held hostage have only slim hopes of seeing any more releases soon.

Spending a dozen years as a prisoner, Moncayo was one of the longest-held hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was released on Tuesday, two days after another fellow soldier, and flown by helicopter from an unannounced handover spot in southern Colombia to an emotional reunion with his family in the city of Florencia.

The leftist rebels still hold at least 20 police officers and soldiers, including Libio Jose Martinez, a sergeant who was captured in 1997 along with Moncayo during a guerrilla attack on a mountain outpost.

Unilateral gesture

"Our esturehopes remain and we have to keep fighting," said Fanny Martinez, a cousin of the 33-year-old soldier.

The rebels sent a statement with the humanitarian team that picked up Moncayo in which FARC commander Alfonso Cano said: "With this unilateral gesture, the FARC considers the path cleared for the immediate exchange of prisoners of war".

But President Alvaro Uribe has opposed a swap of imprisoned rebels for hostages unless any guerrillas who are freed agree to abandon the FARC. Uribe has always insisted any rebels freed from Colombia's prisons as part of a prisoner swap be taken in by another country, such as France.

Uribe, who leaves office in August after two consecutive four-year terms, is hugely popular in Colombia for aggressively fighting the FARC and dealing it crushing blows, including the 2008 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US military contractors and 11 other captives.

Piedad Cordoba, an opposition senator who joined the International Red Cross on the mission to pick up Moncayo, has said the guerrillas insist that after freeing the two soldiers this week, they will now end their unilateral releases and press the government to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

But candidates in the May 30 election to choose Uribe's successor have shown little willingness to negotiate with the FARC, and violence has continued. A bombing blamed on the FARC last week killed nine people in the Pacific port of Buenaventura.

Considering that and other recent attacks, the FARC's message seems to be that "we have sufficient military capability to continue as an insurgent group, but at the same time we're open to the possibility of an eventual dialogue", said Sandra Borda, a political scientist at Los Andes University.

Uribe welcomed Moncayo's release and thanked Brazil - which provided a military helicopter for the mission - along with the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church for their cooperation.

"Colombia receives those who return from captivity with open arms and rejects the kidnappers with the greatest strength," Uribe said in a statement.

50-year rebellion

Moncayo's father, high school teacher Gustavo Moncayo, gained fame walking halfway across Colombia in 2007 to rally support for his son's release, wearing chains around his neck and wrists like those used at times by the rebels to bind their prisoners.

The leftist FARC, the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major rebel army, has fought for nearly a half-century trying to topple a succession of governments.

Estimates vary as to how many Colombian hostages remain in captivity.

The National Fund for Personal Freedom says there are 77 hostages in the country, including those held by the FARC, common criminals and a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army.

Some groups say there are more captives. The non-governmental organization Pais Libre says there are at least 136 people held hostage in Colombia.