- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — In its latest gesture to push for a high-profile prisoner swap, Colombia’s main leftist rebel army says it will free three ailing politicians it has held for more than six years.

In a communique, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the planned liberation springs from efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and “other friendly governments” to seek a solution to Colombia’s long-running conflict.

The FARC set no date for the promised liberation of Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Perez and Orlando Beltran — all Colombians — kidnapped in 2001. But it said it wants to free the hostages on Colombian territory to Chavez or someone chosen by him.

The communique, dated Jan. 31, was received late yesterday by news organizations including the leftist ANNCOL news agency, which regularly publishes FARC statements online.

Interior Minister Carlos Holguin told reporters today that his government welcomed the FARC’s gesture. “We’re disposed to do anything necessary so these countrymen regain their liberty.”

The FARC wants to exchange more than 40 hostages held for as long as a decade for hundreds of imprisoned rebels. But President Alvaro Uribe has rejected its demand that rebel representatives be allowed to carry arms in a proposed demilitarized zone to hold hostage talks.

In August, Colombia’s government asked Chavez to mediate the proposed swap. But it canceled that role in November, accusing him overstepping his mandate.

The FARC freed two high-profile hostages on Jan. 10 to Venezuelan government representatives in a mission coordinated with the International Red Cross. But it has held onto its most famous captives: three U.S. military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French national who was running for Colombia’s presidency when the FARC seized her in February 2002.

The FARC did not specify the ailments of the three hostages it said it was releasing.

Letters penned by fellow captives carried out of the jungle last month by freed hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez described debilitating ailments including malaria, chronic diarrhea and diabetes.

Then Sen. Perez was kidnapped in June 2001. Other hostages say he has been held in jungle camps alongside Betancourt and the three Americans, seized when their surveillance plane crashed in FARC territory in early 2003.

Polanco, a political leader, was kidnapped from her apartment in the southern city of Neiva along with her two sons in August 2001. The sons were released soon after.

She has recently been held in a group with Beltran, an ex-congressman snatched in August 2001. In a letter he wrote to his wife in December, Beltran spoke of being kept in “concentration camp-like conditions,” she said today in a radio interview. “They’re forced to sleep chained to a tree.”

On Monday, marches to denounce the FARC and their kidnapping tactics are planned in Colombia and cities around the world, with nearly 100,000 people confirming their participation on Facebook.com.

The FARC has been trying to overthrow Colombia’s government for nearly five decades and uses kidnapping to pressure the state.

AP writer Cesar Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.

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