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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.

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"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.

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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."