BOGOTA — Colombia’s FARC rebels pledged Sunday to end decades of kidnapping civilians, a historic shift for Latin America’s longest-fighting leftist guerrillas, who also vowed to release remaining police and military hostages.
While dramatic in tone, the FARC promise did not include a potential cessation of hostilities, which the government has sought ahead of any peace talks.
The plan to free the hostages, some of whom have been held for more than a decade, were announced by the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels on their www.farc-ep.co site.
The group said in a statement it planned to “outlaw the practice” of civilian kidnapping, which for decades it had used as a way to raise money, saying the tactic was no longer compatible with “our revolutionary activity.”
The statement dated February 26 and signed by the Central Secretariat of the FARC, said “serious obstacles” still remain to the conclusion of a peace agreement with the Colombian government.
The Marxist guerrilla group has a new leader Timoleon ‘Timochenko’ Jimenez named late last year. He has said he was willing to negotiate with the Colombian government, after the last peace talks which failed almost a decade ago.
President Juan Manuel Santos has not ruled out moving to the negotiating table.
But he has consistently insisted that the FARC first carry out goodwill gestures such as ending kidnappings, recruiting minors and ending terror attacks.
While a FARC shift on their unpopular handling of hostages was dramatic, many analysts still see it as hard to envision peace talks shaping up without a FARC pledge to end hostilities.
The FARC in its statement also thanked the government of Brazil, specifically citing its president Dilma Rousseff, for its offer of logistical assistance in helping efforts to follow through with the hostage release.
Earlier this month, the rebel group postponed an earlier decision to free a half-dozen military and police hostages, citing military movements in the area where the captives were held.
While Santos welcomed the pledge by FARC rebels Sunday to end civilian kidnappings and free 10 police and military hostages, he said on his Twitter account that the moves were “not sufficient.”
Santos added that his government was delighted for the hostages and their families and would do everything possible to ensure that there is no “media circus” surrounding their release.
Founded in 1964, the FARC is holding at least 10 police and soldiers hostage with the goal of trading them for several hundred imprisoned guerrillas. They also are holding an unknown number of civilians for ransom.
The FARC has come under increasing pressure to free hostages with protests erupting nationwide after four rebel prisoners were allegedly killed by their captors on November 26 when a rebel camp came under attack.
Over the years thousands of people — civilians as well as soldiers and ordinary Colombian citizens — have been seized by the armed rebels and held captive for years on end.
Earlier this month, Santos broke off contacts with the FARC rebels, saying negotiations could not go ahead until the guerrillas call a halt to violence, a week after two fatal car bombs that left 15 people dead and 100 wounded.
The car bombs exploded outside police stations in the southeastern towns of Tumaco and Villa Rica. The government blamed both attacks on the FARC.
Perhaps Colombia’s best-known hostage was former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was kept in captivity for in the Colombian jungle for six years by FARC rebels who tied up, beat, humiliated and threatened her with death.
In July 2, 2008, Colombian troops disguised as humanitarian workers arrived by helicopter and released Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including three US military contractors.
Other captives have not been so lucky however, languishing for years with little hope of deliverance.
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Photo via AFP.