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.

By , Correspondent

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    HOSTAGES NO MORE: Colombian police officers Juan Galicia (l.) and Alexis Torres (c.) were greeted by President Alvaro Uribe.
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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.

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.

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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.

Colombian intelligence officers duped the rebels into handing over their most prized hostages – French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors, along with 10 Colombian police and military officers.

But while the FARC has been hurt by those setbacks and by the sustained military and intelligence operations over the past six years, the FARC are estimated to still have nearly 10,000 fighters. A car bomb killed two people in the southwestern city of Cali Sunday night, following a smaller bomb blast in BogotEa last Tuesday that killed two people. The attacks may be rebel messages that they can still strike Colombian cities.

FARC chief Alfonso Cano told the Spanish newsmagazine Cambio 16 in an interview published in December: "We have delivered some blows and we have also suffered some hits. [But] you can be sure that the FARC are in good health."

The latest hostage releases, however, could signal a shift in FARC strategy, says Gérson Arias of the Ideas para La Paz, a Colombian think tank. If former Governor Jara and Mr. López, the legislator, are freed, there will no longer be any civilians among what the FARC consider "swappable" hostages.

"They may have finally realized that it is politically counterproductive to hold civilians," Mr. Arias says. Police and soldiers captured in guerrilla attacks on towns and military bases are considered by the rebels as legitimate "prisoners of war" under international humanitarian law.

But Mr. González argues that the concept of swapping civilian hostages for jailed rebels – which had been central to the FARC's strategy and negotiations for years – has lost relevance. Dozens of the FARC's fighters in Colombian jails have announced publicly that they do not want to be part of any exchange. The loss of the FARC's "star" hostages, rescued in July, means that the approach is now "almost irrelevant," says González.

The hostage releases are seen as a response to an exchange of open letters between the FARC and a group of left-leaning politicians and intellectuals calling themselves Colombians for Peace. In the last public communication, the group asked that the FARC renounce kidnapping altogether, an issue which the rebels did not address. However, the FARC have not repeated their demands for a demilitarized zone in southeastern Colombia, an issue that had thwarted any attempt at negotiating a global accord to release the hostages.

Arias says that freeing hostages this week is also the FARC's way of placing itself on the electoral agenda ahead of the May 2010 presidential vote. In several communiqués, and in Mr. Cano's December interview, the FARC have started dangling the possibility of peace talks, a strategy they have used before as presidential campaigns begin, he notes.

Uribe said earlier this month that FARC leaders "talk about negotiations, etc. The country has fallen for that trick many times, we won't fall for it again."

Still polls show that 60 percent of Colombians favor negotiations over trying to defeat the FARC militarily. Arias says that the next president will have to at least acknowledge those hopes.

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