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Friday, February 23, 2007

Colombia orders hunt for rebels holding hostages

BOGOTA • Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordered the military to intensify the hunt for rebels holding hostages yesterday after rejecting a condition for their release delivered from the guerrilla’s jungle hide-out.

The order scuttled hopes of breaking a deadlock over talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, which has held scores of hostages, including three US conractors, for years as part of Latin America’s oldest rebel insurgency.

Uribe, a Washington ally popular for reducing violence with the help of a US-funded security crackdown, said a civilian emissary had returned from a jungle meeting with the FARC leadership with a demand and threats he could not accept.

“We authorised a Colombian citizen with contacts to make a gesture for a hostage exchange; he went in good faith for the government and brings back a Farc threat,” Uribe said.

“Faced with this threat, we have to get tough with these bandits.” The announcement is a set back for the families of politicians, police and soldiers held for as long as nine years in secret rebel camps. They want Uribe to negotiate an exchange of jailed guerrillas for 61 key hostages held by Farc.

The hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian national and former presidential candidate captured five years ago this week, and three US citizens caught while on a drug eradication mission in 2003.

The Farc, which began fighting for land reform in the 1960s but is now deeply entrenched in Colombia’s cocaine trade, wants the government to demilitarize two towns the size of New York City to facilitate talks.
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