FARC rebels free hostages

2009-02-02 07:28
Villavicencio, Colombia - Colombia's embattled FARC rebels on Sunday handed over four hostages to a humanitarian delegation in the country's southern jungles, a mediator's spokesperson told AFP.

The captives, three police officers and a soldier, are part of a group of six hostages the Marxist rebels have promised to free by Wednesday.

"They have entered into the hands of the delegation and are in flight" by helicopter, said Ricardo Montenegro, a spokesperson for Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has played a key role in talks to secure the hostages' release.

After the handover at 16:00 GMT, a Brazilian helicopter - accompanied by a second chopper - was on its way with the four hostages to Villavicencio, 90km southeast of Bogota.

A member of the delegation told Venezuelan television that the hostages' arrival in Villavicencio was delayed by several hours due to Colombian military operations in the area where they were freed.

However, Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, dismissed the assertion, telling reporters: "We will not allow people to launch unfounded accusations."

Venezuela's Telesur also reported that a rebel from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was killed in clashes with the Colombian army during the rescue operation, citing a spokesperson for the insurgent group.

More humanitarian gestures

Cordoba played a key role in talks to secure the hostages' release, a unilateral move that has marked an about-face for the rebels who had previously ruled out freeing captives without concessions.

The four hostages were received by a delegation that included Cordoba, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and members of a Colombian peace group.

The same helicopter that retrieved the four hostages was due to pick up on Monday Alan Jara, a former governor abducted in 2001, in a similar operation. The rebels were expected to release on Wednesday former lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez, kidnapped in 2002.

The ICRC had previously secured a commitment from the country's defence minister to halt military operations in the Caqueta province, paving the way for the humanitarian mission.

The peace group that helped broker the freeing of the hostages, Colombians for Peace, said on Sunday it would ask the guerrillas to undertake more humanitarian gestures as part of a written dialogue with the rebels that began in September.

"We are going to continue on the path of a written dialogue that is based on humanitarian acts," said Ivan Cepeda, one of the group's leaders.

In a statement posted online, the FARC had promised on December 21 to release the hostages.

'Manoeuvre'

The group has described the move as a "goodwill" gesture, while the Colombian government has called it a " manoeuvre " designed to ease military pressure and gain international sympathy.

The release reverses a FARC decision announced in early 2008 to stop handing over hostages without a demilitarisation of certain regions.

The captives are part of a group of so-called "political hostages" the FARC has wanted to swap for some 500 guerrillas held in Colombian and US jails.

The rebels last carried out a unilateral release of hostages in January and February 2008.

In July, French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt - a former presidential candidate - was rescued in an operation mounted by Colombian spies who tricked the rebels into handing her over along with 14 other hostages.

Former Colombian lawmaker Oscar Tulio Lizcano managed to escape his captors in October.

The FARC - Latin America's oldest and most powerful guerrilla force - has been trying to topple the Colombian government since the 1960s.

A humanitarian prisoner swap has been considered for several years with the rebels, who currently hold between 350 and 700 hostages, including 28 "political hostages".

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