President Alvaro Uribe on Monday began releasing 193 jailed rebels, including a leader who was kidnapped in Venezuela in 2004 and turned over to Colombian authorities.
For nearly five years, Uribe had refused to swap any of the hundreds of guerrillas in Colombian prisons for the estimated 3,000 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other groups.
But Uribe has launched a bold -- some say desperate -- gambit to appease national and international critics who say he isn’t doing enough to ease the hostages’ plight. During this country’s four-decade-long civil war, previous Colombian presidents exchanged prisoners for hostages.
Public sympathy for hostages has increased with the escape last month of a kidnapped soldier who described the inhumane conditions in which some hostages, including presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, are held.
Betancourt and the U.S. workers are among the 56 so-called “exchangeable” hostages that FARC wants to swap for its imprisoned members. Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency. The U.S. workers, employed by Northrop Grumman Corp., were captured in 2003, after their plane crash-landed during an anti-drug reconnaissance flight in southeastern Colombia.
The escaped officer also tugged heartstrings with confirmation that Betancourt’s campaign manager Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped as well, gave birth a year and a half ago.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy played a central role in convincing Uribe to release rebel leader Rodrigo Granda in the hope that the FARC would reciprocate by releasing Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship.
Sarkozy promised Uribe to urge nations at the G-8 meeting in Germany this week to endorse an exchange, according to press reports here. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also expressed support for the release.
Uribe is going through with the plan even though the FARC on Sunday issued a communique playing down any chance that it will reciprocate. The rebels dismissed Uribe’s action as a “smokescreen” and “farce” to divert attention from the country’s deepening paramilitary scandal.
More than a dozen sitting and past members of Congress and governors, nearly all Uribe supporters, have been jailed on charges of associating with outlawed paramilitary groups.
The kidnapping of Granda in Venezuela was the stuff of spy novels and cast a chill over relations with Venezuela. On Monday, Granda became the first rebel to be released when he was flown by helicopter from a prison outside Bogota to the national military academy. He was then escorted to the Roman Catholic Church headquarters. He is rumored to be bound for Cuba.
Granda has not publicly endorsed Uribe’s plan, but the government entertains hopes that he will play a role in mediating a humanitarian agreement, said Alejo Vargas, a political scientist at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, the capital.