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Colombia's FARC rebels say group will stop kidnapping

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said Sunday it will free remaining hostages and stop kidnapping civilians in a bid to restart peace talks with the government.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / February 27, 2012

A police officer holds a photograph of a fellow officer, who was kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the main square during a protest to demand his freedom in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday Feb. 23.

Fernando Vergara/AP

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BOGOTA, Colombia

Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), announced Sunday it would abandon the practice of kidnapping – a tactic that has long defined the FARC. 

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The group's declaration is a clear sign that the guerrillas are angling to restart peace talks with the government. However, analysts say negotiations to end the nearly five-decade-long conflict in Colombia are still far off.

In a communiqué posted on the rebels’ website and signed by the ruling secretariat, the FARC announced it would “forbid the practice” of kidnapping “as part of our revolutionary actions.” The FARC also said it would release its 10 remaining “prisoners of war,” members of Colombia’s security forces, some of whom have been held for as long as 14 years. There was no word as to when the releases would take place, or how many civilian hostages remained.

But with the announced liberation of the last remaining “swappable” hostages – policemen and soldiers – the FARC are giving up on one of their most long-held demands: an exchange of military and political hostages in return for jailed rebels.

Luis Eduardo Celis, an analyst with Nuevo Arco Iris, a conflict research center, says the recent decision by the FARC was aimed at creating conditions for peace talks.  The FARC’s new leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timoleón Jimenez or Timochenko, sees himself as “the man who will take the FARC out of the conflict,” says Mr. Celis. Timochenko took over in November 2011 after former FARC leader Alfonso Cano died in a raid on his camp.

“It’s a game where each side is taking positions. President Santos offers the victims [a] land restitution process. The FARC offer an end to kidnapping,” Celis says, referring to a law that went into effect in January providing damage payments to victims of the Colombian conflict and giving back land to those driven from their homes by the violence.

Insufficient steps

However, President Juan Manuel Santos declared the FARC’s announcement an “important though insufficient step in the right direction.” In addition to ending kidnapping, the government also demands that the FARC end forced recruitment, ban the use of landmines and leave civilians out of the conflict.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, at the height of the Colombian conflict, the FARC used ransom payments to fund their fight against the state, and used political hostages to put pressure on the government.  Many rightwing paramilitary groups began to emerge in reaction the FARC’s widespread practice of kidnapping, and Colombia became known as the kidnapping capital of the world.

In the mid 1990s Colombia witnessed more than 2500 abductions a year, most of which were attributed to the FARC. By 2011 there were 298 kidnappings in Colombia, according to the defense ministry, with the FARC responsible for 26 percent of those (more than 60 percent of the kidnappings today are attributed to common criminals).

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