Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Hostage Talks “Still Alive,” Despite Diplomatic Crisis

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Mar 3 2008 (IPS) - European envoys met over the weekend with members of the FARC rebel group’s central leadership to discuss how to move ahead in the efforts to negotiate a humanitarian exchange aimed at securing the release of Ingrid Betancourt and the rest of the hostages held in the jungle by the guerrillas.

Raúl Reyes, killed Saturday in Ecuador Credit: Latinamericanstudies.org

Raúl Reyes, killed Saturday in Ecuador Credit: Latinamericanstudies.org

“The negotiations are alive. Nothing has changed. Or everything has changed, except the negotiations,” a European source told IPS, on condition of anonymity.

The European facilitators were summoned by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) leadership immediately following the news that Colombian troops had killed Raul Reyes, the head of the insurgent group’s international commission, who was in regular contact with the countries – France, Switzerland and Spain – that are facilitating talks on an exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Reyes and a number of other insurgents were killed Saturday when Colombian forces carried out a bombing raid in Ecuadorian territory. In response to the incursion, Ecuador and Venezuela moved troops to their borders with Colombia and expelled Colombian diplomats. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez also announced that his country’s embassy in Bogotá would be closed.

The European envoys met in an unspecified location with one or several members of the FARC “secretariat”, possibly including Iván Márquez, who was reportedly received by Chávez in Caracas on Nov. 8 in the context of the hostage talks.

“Everything is in tune to achieve an agreement,” said the source. “The negotiations are moving forward, with other actors” in the FARC.

The facilitator countries have been making an effort for years to secure the release of the politicians, police and soldiers held by the FARC, in exchange for the rebels captured in combat by government troops in Colombia’s four-decade civil war.

France and Switzerland have been working with great discretion since 2001, and in 2005 Switzerland invited Spain to take part, although that country’s participation was rejected by the FARC in February, in a statement issued by Reyes.

After 11 hostages held by the FARC, all of them regional lawmakers, were killed in a shootout that took place under unclarified circumstances in June, Uribe agreed in mid-August for Chávez and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba to facilitate hostage talks.

But on Nov. 21, the rightwing president abruptly put an end to their efforts, triggering the worst crisis between Venezuela and Colombia in 200 years, which culminated Sunday in the rupture of diplomatic relations by Venezuela.

As a goodwill gesture to Chávez and Córdoba and to prove their willingness to negotiate, the FARC has unilaterally handed over six civilian hostages this year, in two separate operations.

The former hostages’ personal accounts and their call for a humanitarian agreement to secure the release of the rest of the captives have increased the international pressure on Uribe to negotiate.

On Sunday, the magazine Resistencia Nacional, the FARC mouthpiece, urged that the efforts for a humanitarian swap not be brought to an end. It also called for continuing work “towards our aim of peace and for building an effective democracy with social justice.”

The publication asked for “patience” until the group’s secretariat issues a statement “in the next few days” on Reyes’ death.

The families of several of the hostages expressed fear that the FARC would close the door to talks on a humanitarian agreement after the death of one of its top leaders.

In any case, Uribe could become even more adamant in his refusal to negotiate with the FARC, encouraged by the biggest military blow dealt to the guerrillas in the six years that his administration has been attempting to defeat the rebel group, which controls an estimated 40 percent of the national territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas in the south of the country.

On Friday, the president reiterated that he would not demilitarise any portion of the national territory. The FARC are demanding that government troops be withdrawn from two southern municipalities for 45 days in order to negotiate the swap of around 40 hostages for some 400 or 500 guerrillas currently in Colombian prisons.

On Friday night, Uribe announced to his closest associates that “in the next few hours, there will be very good news for peace in Colombia.”

According to the Colombian TV newscast Noticias Uno, Reyes had already been designated as the target of a military operation back in December.

His satellite phone was located “in late 2007.” Although he almost always kept it turned off, every time he switched it on, even briefly, its coordinates were detected via satellite.

On Feb. 21, Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos and armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla reported that the government had located the site where the four hostages to be released were being held.

Both Santos and Padilla said one of the hostages, Jorge Eduardo Gechem, was seriously ill and offered safety guarantees for the FARC to hand him over immediately.

According to Noticias Uno, which based its report on official sources, the report was a ploy to force Reyes to use his satellite phone again, which he did, enabling the Colombian military to pinpoint his location.

Another phone call made by Reyes indicated that he would be at a specific spot on Feb. 29, Noticias Uno reported. The government added that it also obtained information from two individuals, in exchange for large rewards.

The operation against Reyes was organised from the Defence Ministry’s situation room, and President Uribe stayed up all night following the progress of the bombing raid, according to the official report.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa confirmed that the attack took place in the early hours of Saturday morning, but said it occurred three km from the border, and not “less than 1,800 metres” from the frontier, as Colombian officials claimed.

Colombian troops went more than 10 km into Ecuador to attack Reyes’ camp from the south, Correa added.

The Ecuadorian leader also said the number of guerrillas killed was 20, not 17 as reported by Colombia, and that they were not engaged in combat but were in “their sleeping clothes.”

In addition, some of the bodies “had bullet holes in their back,” said Correa, who maintained that “this was a massacre, not a hot pursuit.”

Noticias Uno is the Colombian media outlet that was in closest contact with Reyes, considered the FARC’s “foreign minister.” His last email message to the station was received on Wednesday, Feb. 27.

“We are not accepting any interviews with representatives of the current government,” Reyes wrote in his message. He also mentioned serious security problems that were slowing down communications, and said that “by the time I can respond to your questions, they are already outdated,” according to brief parts of the email that were reported by the news programme Saturday.


“All signs indicate that Ingrid is in extremely poor health, and that there is no time to lose; we are in a state of emergency,” Juan Carlos Lecompte told IPS, referring to his wife, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship. She has been held hostage by the FARC for 2,199 days.

Lecompte added that “I am very happy that the FARC have maintained the same position with respect to the release of the hostages, and that they have not taken reprisals against them” because of Reyes’ death.

When former police officer John Frank Pinchao, who was held by the FARC with Betancourt, escaped his captors in May 2007, the world learned about the harsh conditions in which the hostages are being held in the insurgents’ remote jungle camps.

Now it is known that “the guerrillas are being particularly hard on Ingrid Betancourt and that she is being held in subhuman conditions, surrounded by people who have not made her life easy at all,” former Colombian senator Luis Eladio Pérez, one of the hostages released last week after nearly seven years in captivity, told the Caracol radio station from Caracas.

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