Rebels in Colombia free four hostages
BOGOTA - Colombia's battered FARC rebels delivered three police officers and a soldier to the International Red Cross yesterday in a mission marred by accusations of military interference.
A Brazilian military helicopter, emblazoned with the Red Cross insignia, retrieved the four hostages from a guerrilla stronghold in Colombia's southern jungles and flew them to a provincial airport, where they were met by relatives and peace activists with hugs and white daisies.
A reporter accompanying the release, Jorge Enrique Botero, said it was hounded and delayed by two hours of military overflights that he called "notorious, abundant, and repetitive."
"They were flying in circles. There were several types of airplanes conducting the flights and this of course caused enormous nervousness, not just among us but also among the people of the FARC," Botero said at the Villavicencio airport in Colombia's eastern plains. He said that he would provide audio and video evidence.
The government's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, called the allegations baseless. He said authorities honored an agreement with the Red Cross for no military flights lower than 20,000 feet during the liberation. Botero did not say how high he thought the planes were flying.
Captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2007, the four security-force members freed yesterday are among six hostages rebels pledged to liberate unconditionally this week. The other two, the only Colombian politicians believed still in rebel hands, have been held far longer.
Analysts consider the releases - the guerrillas' first in nearly a year - a goodwill gesture. However, chances for a peace dialogue with Colombia's government remain remote. Yesterday's alleged military interference could complicate matters.
A guerrilla commander who identified himself as Jairo Martinez, speaking to the Venezuelan television network Telesur, accused the military of killing a rebel in his unit yesterday.
The government peace commissioner, Restrepo, did not directly deny the allegation but said, "We are accustomed to the lies of the FARC."
The Western Hemisphere's last rebel army announced this week's releases on Dec. 21 in response to a plea from Colombian intellectuals.
President Alvaro Uribe, however, has resisted FARC attempts to negotiate a prisoner swap. He has frequently been at odds with the opposition lawmaker who helped engineer this week's releases, Senator Piedad Cordoba.
The releases were greeted with hope, but also skepticism. "It's a step forward. But it's not enough. All the hostages need to be released," said US Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.