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Colombia’s FARC rebels free hostage

Colombian rebels released the first of five political hostages they have promised to set free amid renewed hope in some quarters that the insurgents and the government will launch peace negotiations.

Marcos Baquero, a San Jose del Guaviare city councilman who was kidnapped in June 2009, was released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, at an undisclosed location in the nation’s eastern jungle region and flown to his home town of Villavicencio, where he was reunited with his family.

Baquero, visibly emotional but apparently in good physical condition, tearfully embraced his wife and two children.

“Thank God I’m free,” the 35-year-old had said in a radio interview shortly before his return home.

Four other hostages — army Cpl. Salin Sanmiguel, police Maj. Guillermo Solorzano, marine Henry Lopez and Garzon city councilman Armando Acuna — also are expected to be released this month.

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No direct peace negotiations between the leftist FARC and the government have been held since 2002, when a peace effort by former President Andres Pastrana collapsed.

Leon Valencia, a former rebel who now heads a peace-oriented think tank called the New Rainbow Corp. in Bogota, the capital, said the FARC may be disposed to negotiate after years of ranks thinned by desertions and nearly a decade of battlefield successes by the Colombian military.

“The government is interested because President [Juan Manuel] Santos has other things on his mind, such as dealing with high crime and pushing through a slate of social reforms,” Valencia said. “The FARC may be motivated by the fact they are isolated and have lost a lot of ground militarily.”

The FARC previously said it would free the five hostages only as part of a political negotiation.

In a recent posting on its website, the FARC seemed to soften its typically bellicose language in calling on Santos to “take advantage of the opportunity to start a dialogue that would permit a political solution to this grave conflict.”

Although Santos has taken a hard line publicly on restarting talks with the FARC, he is under some pressure from the United States to reopen negotiations, sources at the U.S. Embassy have said. U.S. military aid, which has totaled $5 billion since 2000, is tapering off, shifting more of the financial burden for the war onto Colombia.

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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