Colombia Releases Jailed Rebels

Rebels being freed from Colombian prison are taken by plane to a facility where they will be held pending release.
Rebels being freed from Colombian prison are taken by plane to a facility where they will be held pending release. (By Miguel Angel Solano -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, June 5 -- President Álvaro Uribe has begun releasing dozens of Marxist rebels from jail in a bid to encourage the country's largest guerrilla group to liberate civilian hostages held in jungle camps, a risky move that has the support of Colombia's European allies.

The hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician with dual French citizenship whose freedom has become a priority for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and three U.S. Defense Department contractors whose relatives say they have been held longer than any other Americans in the world.

In a nationally televised broadcast Monday night, Uribe said that after four conversations with the new French leader, he had decided to unconditionally release Rodrigo Granda, the top guerrilla commander held in Colombia, and begin releasing more than 180 other rebels. The government cast the liberation of the rebels as a bold move designed to nudge the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, to reciprocate -- a strategy also supported by Spain and Switzerland.

"I think it's a positive move," George Gonsalves, father of one of the American hostages, said by telephone from his home in Connecticut on Tuesday. His son, Marc Gonsalves, is one of three Pentagon contractors held by the FARC since 2003, when their surveillance plane crashed in guerrilla-held territory. "It's kind of like putting the ball in the FARC's ballpark at this point."

Yolanda Pulecio, Betancourt's mother, said in Bogota that Uribe's move "gives us a little bit of hope, especially the liberation of Rodrigo Granda."

As the first 50 guerrillas were transferred from prison to a facility where they will be held pending release, opposition leaders and political analysts questioned the strategy Tuesday, noting that Uribe won office by pledging a hard line against the rebel groups that have been fighting the state since 1964.

The FARC has so far snubbed the gesture, calling it a smoke screen designed by the president to divert attention from a widening scandal that has linked Uribe's congressional allies with illegal paramilitary groups. Guerrilla commanders have instead demanded that the government demilitarize two towns in southern Colombia as a safe haven for negotiations on a possible prisoner exchange -- a proposal Uribe has rejected.

Human Rights Watch and congressional opponents suggested Uribe may be setting the stage for an even more controversial plan -- the release of 13 congressmen jailed for ties to paramilitary groups, which have fought the guerrillas since the 1980s. The president has said the government has considered releasing the congressmen, as long as they agree to tell the truth about their ties to paramilitary commanders.

"He wants to show himself as benevolent with the FARC so that later, when he is benevolent with those linked to the para-politics scandal, there isn't a negative public reaction," Carlos Gaviria, leader of the Democratic Pole party, said in an interview.

But Vice President Francisco Santos said release of the congressmen has been delayed. It would happen only after a public debate, he said, and passage of a law that would permit them to confess to crimes in exchange for release from jail. Santos, who was once kidnapped by drug kingpins, said the initiative on the rebels and the initiative on the congressmen were separate, with the main goal being to win the release of dozens of civilian hostages held by the FARC.

The key to triggering movement on the hostages, he said, is the release of Granda, a decision Uribe said he made at Sarkozy's request. Granda, a former Communist Party leader who is known as the "foreign minister" of the FARC, has not renounced the rebel group, but Santos said he has cast himself as a man of peace who could work to bring both sides together.

"We have an understanding that he might start doing gestures and start working to see if he can open a door for dialogue regarding the freedom of the hostages and maybe a peace process in the future," Santos said. He said the government is hoping the FARC warms to the gesture.

"They don't understand the move at present, and obviously these types of very, very bold initiatives, you need to give them time to understand them, to digest them," he said. "Maybe in the near future, they'll start exploring it, if they have the will. That's why it's a risky move, because we don't know what the outcome is."

One serious complication could come from Paraguay, whose government says Granda was involved in the murder of the daughter of a former president. President Nicanor Duarte told reporters Tuesday that Paraguayan judicial authorities want Granda tried in that country.

In Colombia, the FARC's brutal treatment of hostages, which was detailed by a young soldier who was held with Betancourt before escaping last month, has prompted public revulsion while adding to pressure on Uribe's government to do something about captives held for years.

Those whose relatives have been held by the FARC, while seeing the release of Granda as a positive sign, remained concerned that the Colombian government remained far from meeting the rebel group's main demand, the demilitarization of the two southern towns.

"Without a negotiation involving both sides, the captives are not going to be liberated," said Juan Carlos Lecompte, Betancourt's husband.

Betancourt, an author, mother and former Colombian senator, has received widespread attention in France, where candlelight vigils are held in her honor. Sarkozy met Tuesday with Betancourt's children, whose father is a French diplomat, and he pledged to discuss her case at his first Group of Eight summit this week in Germany.

"It's a wonderful thing for the newly elected president of France to make this a major issue," Gonsalves said.

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