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COLOMBIA: Ex-Hostages Call for Political Solution to Conflict

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Feb 29 2008 (IPS) - The solution to Colombia’s armed conflict must be a political one, and the government should “demilitarise” an area in order to negotiate a humanitarian swap of hostages held by the FARC guerrillas for imprisoned insurgents, the four hostages who were released this week said in the Venezuelan capital.

That view is shared by the highest profile hostage held by the rebels, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who is in extremely poor health, said Luis Eladio Pérez at a press conference in which he was accompanied by Gloria Polanco, Jorge Géchem and Orlando Beltrán.

The four former Colombian legislators were handed over Wednesday by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to envoys sent into the jungle on helicopters by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who received them as guests in Caracas.

“We want to urge the different parties to understand that the solution must be political,” said Pérez. “If President Álvaro Uribe stubbornly insists on military rescue attempts, what he is going to receive are 30 or 40 corpses, because that would lead to a massacre, as ordered by the FARC secretariat (high command) in case of an absurd attack in one of those remote swampy jungle areas.”

“We need a political solution to the conflict in Colombia, and a first ray of hope has emerged with the participation of President Chávez and (Colombian Liberal Party) Senator Piedad Córdoba,” said former senator Géchem.

Polanco, who drew tears from reporters talking about their experiences in captivity, said that if the municipalities of Pradera and Florida are not demilitarised, “our companions (some 40 remaining hostages, including politicians, members of the military and police, and three U.S. military contractors) could die. Life must be valued more than a few kilometres of land.”

The FARC are demanding that the military be withdrawn from those two municipalities in southwestern Colombia for 45 days in order to negotiate a hostage-for-prisoner exchange in that area, which would be under the control of the insurgents and international observers.

The guerrillas have been holding hostages, some for over a decade, with the aim of trading them for around 500 rebels held in prisons in Colombia.

Pérez said he and his fellow former hostages would present a proposal to Presidents Uribe, Chávez and Nicolás Sarkozy of France – who said he is willing to personally fly in and pick up Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, if necessary – but added that “we must not go public with it until we present it to them.”

Chávez, for his part, has proposed “setting up a group of friendly countries along the lines of the Contadora group (which played a key role in bringing peace to Central America two decades ago) to achieve a humanitarian exchange. It could immediately be set up to receive envoys sent by (FARC chief Manuel) Marulanda and the government, to discuss the hostages’ release.”

But Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguín reiterated Bogotá’s position that “a demilitarised zone is not possible,” although he said the Uribe administration would accept “a meeting area wherever the FARC would like, in an uninhabited area free of the presence of both them and the army.”

Uribe’s argument is that a demilitarised zone created in the southern Colombian municipality of San Vicente del Caguán for the 1999-2002 peace talks between the FARC and the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) not only failed to produce results but also allowed the guerrillas to resupply and strengthen themselves, while continuing their practice of taking hostages.

Pérez challenged Uribe “to demonstrate the success of his democratic security policy by demilitarising the municipalities of Pradera and Florida and sending the armed forces in to recuperate the area after 45 days.”

He said the guerrilla columns that had been holding him for nearly seven years took him through areas that had been “recuperated by” or were “under the control of” military and police units, and added that he was even held in northern Ecuador on some occasions, although he did not believe he was ever in Venezuela.

In a brief conversation with IPS, Pérez said that “if Uribe is afraid that the demilitarisation of a very small part of Colombian territory for just a few days would turn it into an epicentre of a new wave of kidnappings, that means his democratic security policy is not as strong as he wants Colombians to think.”

“There have already been too many deaths” showing that his policy isn’t working, said Pérez. “Uribe must assume responsibility and understand that the means can condition the ends, and that force is not the best way to achieve peace.”

Beltrán said “the FARC have begun to understand that the abominable method of kidnapping is not the solution,” and added that “one of the points of a humanitarian accord would be for the FARC to agree to stop using hostage-taking as a political tool.”

Pérez described the FARC as “a political and military force that uses terrorist practices, including hostage-taking.” But he did not accept the “narcoguerrilla” label that has been attached to them.

“I don’t believe that they are directly ‘narcoguerrillas’, although they are involved in the drug trafficking business, because they charge a commission when drug trafficking operations are carried out in the areas where they operate,” Pérez told IPS.

The main concern shared by all four of the hostages freed this week is Betancourt, who is in an “extremely difficult” situation, both physically and emotionally, although Beltrán said “we will fight just as hard for the release of all of them, because we do not believe there are first, second and third-class hostages.”

“I in particular owe my life to Ingrid,” said Pérez. “When I had a heart attack and fell into a diabetic coma in the jungle, she was the one who helped me, from washing my clothes to supporting me on the long walks. I ask God to allow me to spend my last days with my family and to repay Betancourt for her support.”

The four former hostages announced that they would take part in the Mar. 6 demonstration against the violence and the ultra-right paramilitary militias and in favour of peace and a humanitarian exchange that a number of organisations are organising in Colombia, after the Feb. 4 worldwide protest held under the theme “No More FARC”.

Pérez said “there is growing awareness in Colombian society against the violence. The FARC are one form of violence. That is what is good about those marches.”

After six years in captivity in the jungle, the four former lawmakers are currently undergoing medical exams in Caracas, although they all want to return home to Colombia as soon as possible.

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