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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Colombian rebels say hostage exchange at a standstill

PARIS, Aug 23 (Reuters) - Colombia's largest rebel group is open to exchanging hostages for the release by the government of its guerrillas but plan is at a standstill, a spokesman for the rebels said in an interview released on Wednesday.

Raul Reyes, the spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also said French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held hostage since February 2002, was well.

"The plan for a humanitarian exchange is at a standstill," Reyes said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper which took place in the Colombian jungle on Aug. 18. The government wants the 17,000-strong FARC to free 62 hostages including three American defence contractors and Betancourt, in exchange for rebels held in government jails.

But President Alvaro Uribe and the rebel group are deadlocked over the terms for starting talks that might lead to an exchange.

Speaking about Betancourt, Reyes said: "She is there. She reads, she walks, she smokes, like all the other hostages.

"And I imagine that every day she asks herself when she will finally be set free. Like all the guerrillas in prison."

He told the paper the FARC had never had any plans for her individual release. The FARC says it is fighting for socialism in a country with deep divisions between rich and poor but even mainstream leftist politicians say the groups have scant popular support.

Thousands are killed and tens of thousands are forced from their homes every year by Colombia's four-decade-old war, which is fuelled by the country's huge cocaine trade.
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