Colombia is facing mounting pressure to make concessions to leftist rebels that might lead to the release of their remaining captives. Bogota has refused on Friday to withdraw its forces from two towns, as demanded by the FARC. (Report: J.Jackson)
Former hostages and foreign presidents piled pressure on Colombia to make concessions to leftist rebels that might lead to the release of their remaining captives, including Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, said to be deathly ill.
Four former Colombian lawmakers newly released from years in the jungle urged President Alvaro Uribe to withdraw temporarily from two towns in southwestern Colombia -- a key rebel precondition for a prisoner exchange.
"I publicly challenge President Alvaro Uribe to prove the success of his security policy by withdrawing from Pradera and Florida," Luis Eladio Perez told a press conference in Caracas on Thursday, a day after his release.
Earlier, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed that select Latin American and European countries host talks to negotiate the release of all hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Twice this year, the Colombian rebels have unconditionally handed hostages over to the leftist Venezuelan president, in a snub of US ally Uribe who late last year fired Chavez from his role attempting to mediate a prisoner swap.
"It's an idea that is taking shape, among this group of countries," Chavez said Thursday on state television network VTV.
Brazil, Argentina, France, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba and Switzerland support the idea, and the only obstacle to going forward is the Colombian government's opposition, he said.
Bogota has rejected the rebel demand that government forces withdraw completely for 45 days from the two towns, proposing instead to call a truce while negotiations take place.
The FARC wants to exchange 39 of its hostages -- believed to total around 750 -- for 500 of its fighters held in Colombian prisons.
Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin Thursday rejected the rebel demand.
"A demilitarized zone is not possible, but a meeting zone yes, wherever FARC wants, in an unpopulated zone, without military presence from their side or ours," he said.
In Caracas, former hostage Gloria Polanco said: "I am asking for a humanitarian accord, because value has to be placed on life, not on a piece of land."
Uribe "has to understand that if he does not demilitarize Pradera and Florida, as the FARC wants, our companions may die in captivity," she said.
Perez, Polanco, Orlando Beltran and Jorge Gechem were recovered Wednesday by Red Cross and Venezuelan officials and flown in on Venezuelan aircraft.
The former hostages described their ordeal of living in "subhuman conditions" amid faltering health due to stress and tropical diseases.
"The conditions of confinement are like a concentration camp," Perez told Colombia's Radio Caracol in a telephone interview Thursday.
Perez said he feared for 46-year-old Betancourt, a former candidate for the Colombian presidency, describing her as "very, very sick, physically and morally spent."
Both he and Betancourt were mistreated because they were not compliant, Perez said, adding however that FARC would not go so far as to kill her.
"She is worth gold to the rebels," he told Caracol.
The comments by Perez, who last saw Betancourt on February 4, stirred an emotional outcry in France, where her 19-year-old son tearfully pleaded to the international community to help secure her release amid fears she could die.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was ready to go pick her up himself.
"I call on the FARC to free Ingrid Betancourt without delay, it is a matter of life or death," he said during a visit to South Africa Thursday.
"I am ready to go myself to collect Ingrid Betancourt on the border between Venezuela and Colombia, were that to be a condition."
On January 10, the FARC freed two other hostages in the first such gesture in more than five years: former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez, and Clara Rojas, who was Betancourt's campaign manager and was kidnapped along with her in 2002.
But FARC has suggested no more hostages would be freed unless a deal is reached on a military withdrawal.
Also still in captivity are three Americans seized by rebels in 2003 whom Perez described as in poor health and "fairly beaten up psychologically."
The three gave him letters they had written to President George W. Bush, the three top presidential candidates and other political leaders, but rebels confiscated the documents before he was freed, Perez said.
Date created : 2008-02-29