Under pressure at home and abroad to secure the release of hostages held by leftist rebels, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Friday dusted off a proposal he made two years ago to create a neutral “encounter point” where rebels would swap kidnapping victims for government-held guerrillas.
His government also is setting up a $100-million fund to give rewards to rebels who bring hostages home safely, Uribe said.
The announcement was the latest turn in efforts to secure the release of about 45 political hostages held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Uribe has said he would free hundreds of suspected rebel soldiers in exchange for the hostages.
What chance his latest plan has of succeeding was uncertain Friday because it has strings attached and resembles a 2005 offer that the rebels rejected. Nevertheless, relatives of hostages said they were hopeful that recent changes in the political climate might lead the FARC to accept.
“The proposal is nearly identical, but circumstances have changed and there are more countries involved in trying to get a humanitarian agreement,” said Margarita Hernandez, sister of police commander Elkin Hernandez, who was kidnapped in October 1998. “So we’re waiting for the FARC to respond.”
Also Friday, a spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Paris that French intelligence services had made contact with the guerrillas in the Colombian countryside in an effort to secure the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a citizen of both countries. Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, was taken hostage in February 2002.
“They’ve been there for a certain time,” spokesman David Martinon said of the agents at a weekly media briefing. “It’s obviously a very difficult mission because you can imagine to get in touch with the FARC you have to march.”
Sarkozy has said Betancourt’s release is a high priority of his government. She is one of 45 hostages, including three U.S. defense workers, whom the rebels have termed “exchangeable.” The FARC is believed to be holding 750 people.
On a website where the FARC often issues its communiques, the rebels said Thursday that they welcomed the French efforts as “praiseworthy and sincere.” Brazilian and Argentine officials also have volunteered in recent weeks to help broker a hostage swap.
There was no immediate response Friday on the website to the Uribe proposal.
Uribe’s announcement came two weeks after he abruptly terminated the role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in mediating between Colombia and the rebels because of an alleged breach of protocol. That led to a nasty exchange between the two and Chavez’s declaration that he was putting binational relations in the “freezer.”
Then, days later, Colombian authorities arrested suspected FARC couriers who were carrying the first “proof of life” videos of the hostages seen in more than four years. Those pictured included Betancourt and the three Americans.
The photos of a downcast and haggard Betancourt and a letter to her family in which she detailed her sufferings during five years of captivity led to an outpouring of public sympathy for the captives. It also led to criticism that Uribe had acted too hastily in ending Chavez’s role, that the fiery and polarizing Venezuelan leader was achieving results.
There have been no exchanges of guerrillas for hostages since Uribe took office in 2002 because the government and the FARC cannot agree on terms, including a rebel demand that the government clear two counties in central Colombia of police and army presence for an indefinite time where the swap can take place.
Uribe has long resisted the idea of an open-ended neutral zone such as one granted to the rebels in eastern Colombia from 1998 to 2002 by his predecessor, Andres Pastrana. That agreement only gave the guerrillas a secure zone from which to launch attacks and engage in drug trafficking, Uribe has said.
But at a meeting of an advisory council Wednesday night, Pastrana and another former president, Ernesto Samper, urged Uribe to reconsider the option of declaring a neutral zone. Pastrana and Uribe exchanged heated words, according to reports citing those present.
Uribe on Friday continued to resist an open-ended arrangement, saying he would agree to declare a 30-day neutral zone of nearly 60 square miles in a rural area, where armed groups from either side would be prohibited.
Under the plan, the Roman Catholic Church would supervise the exchange after the International Red Cross ascertained that the hostages were in good health.
In late 2005, Spain, France and Switzerland offered to supervise an exchange in an area of southern Colombia. The proposal involved the creation of a 45-day neutral zone. Uribe agreed, but the rebels let it be known that the time was too short and that they wanted the zone in a different part of Colombia.
Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.