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 , Staff writer

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.

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."

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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.

"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....

"[FARC doesn'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."

The Houston Chronicle reports that while Uribe classified the release of the FARC rebels as "a humanitarian gesture," many Colombians wouldn't see the release of the government officials in the same light. According to surveys, a majority of Colombians are opposed to the release of the accused government officials, but "the arrangement may seem more palatable amid the mass release of guerillas," writes the Chronicle.

In separate press statements, humanitarian organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty Internationalurged the US Congress to pressure Uribe into making sure that the accused Colombian officals are not released if they admit to their crimes. Human Rights Watch warned that doing so would risk "undermining the progress being made by courts and prosecutors who are investigating paramilitaries' political networks."

"After decades of impunity, Colombia's courts are finally starting to shed some light on politicians' collaboration with paramilitaries," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "But in Orwellian fashion, Uribe now claims that to further the truth, the indicted politicians must go free."

Some of the politicians in question allegedly won elections thanks to electoral fraud paramilitary violence. By letting them off the hook, the government would undermine democracy, sending the message that corruption and paramilitary infiltration of the political system are not serious problems, Human Rights Watch warned.

Reuters reports that President Sarkozy plans to bring up the plight of the hostages held by FARC during the Group of Eight summit in Germany this week, in an attempt to gather support from other countries in pressuring for the hostages' release. An analysis on the political thinktank website Angus Reid Global Monitor calls Uribe's decision to release the rebels a "bold move," speculating that Sarkozy's involvement in helping secure the release of Granda may provide a large incentive for FARC to release their hostages. According to a Colombian security analyst cited in the piece, Sarkozy could "use his high profile within the international community to request that the European Union (EU) and the United States remove the FARC from the list of terrorist organizations and grant it the status of political dissidents they lost years ago."

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