CESAR GARCIA (VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia,AP): Colombia’s main rebel group on Monday freed what it says were its last 10 military and police captives, returning the men to their families after at least 12 years spent in jungle prisons.
The release of the six police and four soldiers highlighted efforts to seek peace talks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Latin America’s oldest and most potent guerrilla band, which has been weakened by Colombia’s U.S.-backed military.
(MORE: Have Colombia’s Rebels Really Given Up on Kidnapping?)
Flown from a jungle rendezvous aboard a loaned Brazilian air force helicopter emblazoned with the Red Cross logo, the freed captives waved jubilantly.
They were escorted from the Super Cougar helicopter by nurses to awaiting relatives for reunions behind closed doors. Some jumped for joy on the tarmac.
Pets accompanied some of the men: a peccary, a monkey, two small birds. A few wore the Colombian flag over their shoulders. All looked newly shaven.
Their loved ones were overjoyed.
“I shouted! I jumped up and down!” said Olivia Solarte when got first word her 41-year-old son, police officer Trujillo had been freed. He’d been held since July 1999.
The group was flown to Bogota where other relatives were waiting along with obligatory hospital stays for medical checks.
The rebel group, known as the FARC, had announced Monday’s liberation on Feb. 26 in tandem with a halt in ransom kidnappings as a revenue source.
President Juan Manuel Santos called the release “a step in the right direction, a very important step” but cautioned against “pure speculation” that it augured an imminent peace dialogue.
He said he wants proof the FARC, which took up arms in 1964, is truly abandoning ransom kidnapping.
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“When the government considers that sufficient conditions and guarantees exist to begin a process that brings an end to the conflict the country will know,” he said.
It is not known how many ransom kidnap victims the FARC holds.
The head of Colombia’s anti-kidnapping police puts the number at least six, including four Chinese oil workers seized last June. Other officials put the number closer to two dozen.
The citizens’ watchdog group Fundacion Pais Libre maintains a list of at least 400 people the FARC kidnapped or has otherwise held against their will since 1996 who were never freed. It doesn’t expunge a name from its records until the person is released or a body is found.
Two serious goverment-FARC peace negotiations failed over the past three decades, and recent weeks have seen an upsurge in violence in the conflict.
The FARC killed at least 11 soldiers in a mid-March attack in Arauca near the Venezuelan border and the military responded with two precision bombings on rebel camps that killed more than 60 insurgents.
The rebels have in recent years suffered their worst battlefield setbacks ever, beginning when Santos was defense minister from 2006-2009 and thanks to billions in U.S. military assistance and training.
Their main source of funding is the cocaine trade and military pressure has made holding kidnap victims increasingly difficult for the FARC.
Monday’s mission was brokered by leftist former Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has served as a go-between in the release of 20 FARC hostages since January 2008.
Cordoba told reporters her work would be done with this week’s releases as she has no desire to become involved in cases in which money rather than politics are involved.
She said, however, that the activist group she leads, Colombians for Peace, plans to send letters to the FARC asking it exactly how many civilians it holds.
The FARC has only publicly acknowledged holding captives it considered “exchangeable:” police, soldiers or politicians it held for political leverage, hoping to swap them for imprisoned rebels.
It held scores of such prisoners in the late 1990s when it controlled about half the countryside but gradually released them all, never obtaining the hoped-for exchange.
(MORE: Colombia’s Guerrillas: The Rebellion That Would Not Die)
Some captives were rescued. Franco-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors in 2008 were freed in a bold ruse involving Colombian soldiers posing as members of a phony international humanitarian group. But others, at least 25, died in captivity, many killed by FARC insurgents when rescuers real or imagined neared.
Among those in attendance for Monday’s release was Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace prize.
She said it is now time for Colombia’s government to respond to the FARC’s gesture with its own display of political willingness to attain peace.
But analysts caution that peace talks, even back-channel negotiations, could be a long time coming.
Many don’t believe they could happen before 2014 presidential elections.
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