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FARC rebel release: 'smokescreen' or 'humanitarian'?

Colombia's president says it's a step towards a prisoner swap, but critics say it's a setup for freeing accused gov't officials.

By Jesse NunesStaff writer / June 7, 2007

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's decision to release more than 150 imprisoned members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has elicited hope from supporters and family members of hostages held by FARC, as well as prompting accusations of ulterior motives relating to a growing government scandal.

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Agence France-Presse reports that FARC's "foreign minister" Rodrigo Granda, left prison Monday, and it's now hoped that the group will free 56 hostages it is holding, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has duel French-Colombian citizenship. French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Mr. Uribe make the move in an attempt to gain the freedom of Ms. Betanancourt and the other hostages, AFP writes.

Sarkozy's office said the French president had "explicitly requested" that Uribe release Granda and welcomed his Colombian counterpart's "very important and courageous decision."

Sarkozy, whose country has sought Betancourt's release for five years, "now hopes that this development will be heard by FARC" and that "they will respond," his office said in a statement Tuesday.

Betancourt, a politician, was taken hostage in February 2002 while she was running a long-shot campaign for Colombia's presidency.

The Los Angeles Times reports that FARC dismissed the release of the prisoners as a "farce" and a "smokescreen" indended to divert attention from a growing government scandal, in which more than a dozen government officials have been jailed with associating with right-wing paramilitaries.

CNN writes that FARC is refusing to free any of their hostages until the government cedes two southern towns to the rebels by withdrawing government troops there, a stance confirmed by Mr. Granda after his release.

Granda identified the towns as Pradera and Florida in the southern province of Valle del Cauca.

"With that, it may generate a dynamic that not only will permit the return of the FARC's hostages to their relatives, but also increase confidence between the two sides and set the basis for possible talks which could lead to a negotiated political agreement," he told reporters.

In an interview with the Swedish-based news organization that covers Colombia — The New Colombia News Agency (ANNCOL) — FARC commander Raul Reyes confirmed the guerilla group's stance on the withdrawal of troops from the two towns as a precondition for any release of hostages. The BBC reports that President Uribe has rejected such a move, saying "I cannot accept a demilitarised zone but I also cannot stop seeking the release of my compatriots and the three kidnapped Americans," referring to three American military contractors who have been held captive by FARC since their plane went down in southern Colombia in 2003.

The Washington Post reports that family members of Betancourt and of the captured Americans initially saw Uribe's release of the prisoners, especially Granda, as a positive sign that gave them hope for a prisoner swap. But political opponents of Uribe in Colombia see the release of the FARC rebels as setting the stage for the release of 13 congressmen accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, the Post reports.