Colombian rebels' new strategy: release hostages
The release of four hostages Sunday marks an attempt by FARC to regain public credibility after a devastating year, say analysts.
Colombian leftist guerrillas freed four hostages on Sunday in the first of three hand-overs planned for this week. The release is a unilateral goodwill gesture that marks an attempt by the rebels to regain public credibility after a devastating year, say analysts.Skip to next paragraph
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The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) freed three policemen and a soldier who had been kidnapped in 2007 and were among the newest of what the FARC had considered its bargaining chips to force concessions from the country's conservative government.
It is the first unilateral release of hostages by the FARC after suffering the worst year ever in their four-decade-old insurgency. Camilo González, an analyst with the Indepaz peace studies group, said the rebels' decision to do this is part of a FARC effort to regain political relevance. "It is the FARC's way of trying to recover some political initiative after a disastrous year," he said.
But Sunday's hand-over was dogged by delays – and controversy. Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero, a member of the group that had arranged the deal, reported that the Brazilian helicopters that had gone to pluck the four hostages from a prearranged clearing in the southern jungles of Colombia had been followed and "harassed" by Colombian military aircraft.
President Álvaro Uribe acknowledged that military aircraft had flown over the area of the hand-over Sunday but said they were well above the no-fly zone the government had agreed to in order to facilitate the release. Mr. Uribe said initially that he would ban any civilians from participating in any future handoffs. But he later agreed to a request by the International Committee of the Red Cross to at least allow opposition Sen. Piedad Cordoba to take part. At press time, it was unclear if the planned Monday and Wednesday hostage hand-overs would go ahead.
The policemen and soldier were released Sunday to a commission led by left-wing Senator Cordoba. She was accompanied by the members of the Red Cross and a civilian group, Colombians for Peace.
On Monday, the rebels planned to release former Governor Alan Jara, and on Wednesday former regional lawmaker Sigifredo López, the last two civilians of the group of hostages the rebels once hoped to use in negotiations with the government.
Early in 2008, the FARC worked with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to orchestrate the release of two groups of hostages amid a flurry of international media attention that was meant to boost the rebels' standing. But by March the tide had turned against them.
In a combination of miscalculations and Colombian military successes, the rebels lost some of their top leaders in 2008. FARC founder Manuel Marulanda died, apparently of natural causes. FARC Cmdr. Raul Reyes was killed during a Colombian raid on his camp in Ecuador. Dozens of other FARC commanders and key guards deserted or were captured. The biggest blow came in July.