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Fernando Vergara/AP
Former hostage Alexis Torres

FARC’s Prisoner Release Raises Questions About Group’s Health, Influence

February 02, 2009 11:24 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
FARC released four captives on Sunday, calling it a sign of goodwill. The rebel group’s power and public image have reportedly been declining.

FARC Plans to Release Prisoners

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The militant Colombian rebel group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) released four hostages on Sunday—three policemen and one soldier—who had been held captive for about 20 months. FARC had announced on Dec. 21 that the hostages would be released within a few days, according to the Los Angeles Times. These four are the first FARC hostages to be freed in about a year.

Piedad Cordoba, a left-wing senator and critic of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, helped organize the release.

FARC has indicated that it will also free two politicians by Wednesday: former lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez and former governor Alan Jara. FARC hopes the release of such individuals will win the freedom of FARC’s own members from government custody, the BBC reports.

However, the rebels did not set any stipulations for the hostage release, according to the Los Angeles Times. A group of politicians and intellectuals called Colombians for Peace wrote a letter last year calling for the release of hostages, and yesterday’s action is believed to be in response to that letter.

FARC considers the hostage release to be a “humanitarian gesture,” according to the Scotsman. “The new releases have fuelled speculation that the Farc wants to free more captives and gain political leverage to restore its battered image. But negotiations with the government still appear far off as both sides stick to demands for talks.”

FARC is thought to still have more than 700 hostages in its possession. The group says that 24 of those people are considered “exchangeable” for rebel prisoners held by the Colombian government, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Also on Sunday, a car bomb exploded near a police building in the city of Cali, killing at least one person. Cali officials hold FARC responsible for the bombing, according to the BBC.

But despite the bombing, reports indicate that the Colombian government has FARC on the defensive; the military has recently forced the rebel group “further into mountain and jungle areas,” according to the BBC.

Background: FARC’s seeming decline

On Oct. 26, former Colombian lawmaker Oscar Tulio Lizcano became the 22nd Colombian hostage to escape from FARC in 2008. He had been held hostage by the rebel group for more than eight years.

The Associated Press reported that the recently freed Lizcano emerged from the jungle looking like “a crazy man—bearded, grimy, slumped on another man’s shoulder and screaming across a jungle river.”

FARC has been fighting the Colombian government for the past 44 years, but in the past year has shown signs of weakening.

In May, the Colombian government announced and FARC confirmed that the founder of the group, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, had died in March. It had just been announced days earlier that the beleaguered organization’s leader, Nelly Avila Moreno, had turned herself in to Colombian authorities, in what looked to be a turning point in the government’s efforts to stamp out the leftist organization.

In July, the rescue of 15 hostages from FARC, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was seen as further evidence of a weakening in the rebel group’s strength. Many observers also saw it as an indication of Uribe’s increasing control over Colombia.

In January 2008, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged other nations, including the United States, Colombia and some in Europe, to stop calling FARC a terrorist organization. The idea was widely rejected.

Reference: FARC

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