September 4, 2006

Colombian rebels press government for hostage swap

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombian rebels holding 62
hostages, including three Americans and former presidential
candidate Ingrid Betancourt, called on Monday for
"face-to-face" talks with the government on a prisoner

The move came less than a month into the second term of
President Alvaro Uribe, a Washington ally popular for his
crackdown on drug-running Marxist guerrillas who kidnapped
French/Colombian citizen Betancourt during her 2002 campaign
and three American defense contractors during a 2003 mission to
locate crops used to make cocaine.

"What's needed is a face-to-face agreement," said a
statement titled "An Exchange Now!" posted on the Web site of
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said the statement lacked

The Americans -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith
Stansell -- along with Betancourt are among the FARC hostages
Uribe wants to swap for guerrillas held in government jails.
The government and the 17,000-strong rebel army are deadlocked
over terms for starting negotiations.

Uribe has been accused by human rights groups of giving
soft treatment to far-right militias, most of whom have agreed
to lay down their arms in exchange for reduced prison sentences
for crimes ranging from cocaine smuggling to massacre.

The government has also been jolted by corruption scandals
involving state security forces. In May, for example, 10
anti-narcotics police were gunned down by Colombian soldiers in
the pay of drug dealers near the western town of Jamundi,
prosecutors say.

"The government's position vis-a-vis the FARC has been
weakened by criticism of Uribe's handling of the paramilitary
demobilization and scandals such as Jamundi," said Francisco
Leal, political analyst at Bogota's University of the Andes.

"The FARC is timing this request for a direct meeting
without intermediaries to take advantage of that relative
weakness," he added.

The United States has given billions of dollars in aid to
Colombia aimed in part at combating the 42-year-old FARC, which
despite scant popular support says it is fighting to close the
wide gap that divides rich and poor in this Andean country.
Thousands are killed in Colombia's guerrilla war every year.