BOGOTÁ, Dec 19 (IPS) – The leaders of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas ordered the release of two women hostages and the young son of one of them as a gesture of “compensation” for the frustrated facilitation efforts made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, and of goodwill towards the hostages’ families.
“The order to free them in Colombia has already been given,” says a seven-point communiqué sent by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas dated Dec. 9 and sent by email Tuesday to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which published it a few hours later.
The hostages, politicians Consuelo González and Clara Rojas, and the son of the latter, who was born in captivity, must be received by “President Chávez or someone designated by him,” says the statement.
The FARC said the gesture is “an unquestionable show of the hope that we had deposited in the facilitator role” of Córdoba and Chávez, whose mission was to negotiate an exchange of hostages held by the rebels for imprisoned insurgents.
But their efforts, which began in mid-August when Córdoba was appointed facilitator by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and enlisted Chávez’s support, was abruptly brought to an end by him on Nov. 21, causing severe tension between Venezuela and Colombia.
After Chávez said the FARC statement was authentic, government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo announced that “the Colombian government welcomes” the unilateral release of the hostages.
The communiqué is dated two days after Uribe’s Dec. 7 proposal to establish a 150 square km demilitarised zone for 30 days to negotiate a hostage-prisoner swap — a proposition that the FARC reject in the statement.
For that reason, journalist Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist weekly Voz, also had doubts about the authenticity of the message.
He told IPS that when he had contact with the guerrillas on Dec. 13, they did not mention the communiqué.
If the statement is authentic, the FARC are standing by their demand for the creation of a demilitarised zone in the southern municipalities of Florida and Pradera in order to negotiate an exchange of around 45 hostages — mainly members of the security forces captured in combat — for 500 guerrillas currently in prison.
The facilitators and the hostages’ families had asked the FARC to unilaterally hand over a group of women hostages and hostages who are ill. Chávez reached an agreement with the rebels for the release of a small group before Dec. 31.
“We accept their request,” says the FARC statement.
Chávez, who is in Uruguay to attend the summit of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, confirmed that “a few days ago I received the response from (FARC commander Manuel) Marulanda anticipating that he would order the release of a group (of hostages) as a gesture of goodwill and compensation.”
With respect to the difficult process of handing over the two women and the boy, he said that “we will evaluate things as we go; we have several alternatives, none of which are easy. They are in the middle of the jungle; I can’t go and personally receive them as I would like.”
“I hope the Colombian government will collaborate. It is possible that international bodies will also cooperate to achieve their prompt release,” he added.
Clara Rojas was the running-mate of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, the highest-profile hostage, who holds dual French-Colombian nationality. The two women were seized in February 2002, after peace talks broke off between the government and the FARC in the southern region of Caguán.
Rojas’s son Emmanuel, whose father is a guerrilla fighter as revealed by Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero in April 2006, was reportedly born in December 2004.
Consuelo González was taken hostage in September 2001 when her car was intercepted on a highway in southern Colombia. At the time, she was a member of the lower house of Congress representing the Liberal Party. Her husband, Jairo Perdomo, died in 2005 and she has a granddaughter she has never met.
In a video recording obtained by Botero in 2003 to prove that she was still alive, a dejected-looking González appears, crying. Her family also received a letter from her in 2002.
The handover of the two women and the boy should take place “in circumstances that prevent base deeds” by the government “like what occurred with the ‘proof of life’” documents, says the FARC statement.
The guerrillas were referring to two messengers who were carrying video recordings and letters showing that Betancourt and 16 other hostages are still alive, provided by the rebels as part of the negotiations for a hostage-prisoner swap. The two women were arrested by the Colombian authorities on Nov. 29 in Bogotá, even though the “proof of life” documents had been specifically requested by Chávez.
“The outrageous cancellation of (Chávez’s) facilitator role was an act of diplomatic barbarity against the legitimate head of state of a sister country and against the Venezuelan people,” adds the statement.
The all-out effort by Chávez and Córdoba had won broad international support. After Uribe unexpectedly cut off their mission, they were asked by the hostages’ families to continue their successful work towards a hostage-prisoner swap, based on international humanitarian principles.
Córdoba is currently in Washington to meet with Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an aide to the senator told IPS.
Since 2003, the FARC have held three U.S. military contractors who were seized while working within the context of the Washington-financed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.
French analyst Pascal Drouhaud, who until recently was head of foreign affairs in the governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, told IPS from Paris that the release of the three hostages would be “a humanitarian gesture of great significance.”
“We are all congratulating ourselves on this, because we all feel solidarity towards the hostages and their families. But at the same time, it is a very well thought out, astute political gesture, which shows that the FARC and the group’s leadership have a strong sense of strategy,” he said.
“We are entering a very complex political negotiation,” he warned. “This gesture shows that the FARC have their ears open to national and international demands, and that they are not isolated.”
Drouhaud believes the FARC are sending the following message: “We are willing to carry out in-depth negotiations. You, the European Union and France, want Ingrid’s release. We have dozens of ‘exchangeable’ hostages. Let’s sit down and really negotiate.”
“They are thinking, analysing, interpreting, to defend their interests of course. They are studying how to move within the strong international pressure that has been so clearly revealed over the past few weeks,” he added.
However, Drouhaud does not believe that these humanitarian advances are sufficient reason for the FARC to be removed from the EU list of terrorist organisations.
“Today that is the position of the EU, adopted in May 2002. And there is no reason to believe that there will be any change for now in the bloc’s stance. As the FARC’s humanitarian gesture shows, everything is in flux, but I don’t think that at this point there are any signs” that the rebel group, which is seeking international recognition as a “belligerent force”, will be taken off the list of terrorist organisations.