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FARC rebel offers to hand over Betancourt

Latest update : 2008-06-14

A FARC rebel is in negotiations with the Colombian government to hand over Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages, according to President Alvaro Uribe. The movement has been weakened by the death of three top commanders. (Report: C.Westerheide)

BOGOTA, June 13 (Reuters) - A Colombian FARC rebel has
offered to release French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt
and other guerrilla captives in exchange for protection from
extradition, President Alvaro Uribe said on Friday.

Efforts to negotiate with the FARC over its hostages, who
have been held for as long as a decade in jungle camps, are
stalled. But the rebels have been weakened by recent deaths of
three commanders and desertions fueled by government bounties.

Uribe said Colombia's intelligence agency, DAS, has
responded by offering the guerrilla protection from extradition
should the hostages be freed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia, or FARC. But he gave few details or names.

"We sent a note to the guerrilla who offered to hand over
Ingrid Betancourt and other kidnap victims," he said. "The DAS
director send it with my authorization, saying there will be no
extradition if this goes through. We hope this is true."

Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, was kidnapped
more than five years ago while campaigning. She is the FARC
hostage with the highest profile. Others include three U.S.
defense contractors kidnapped in 2003.

Uribe's announcement may signal a bid by FARC members to
break away and surrender with hostages as the rebels struggle
to remain united and come under more pressure from the

But some analysts questioned why Uribe would make public
such a delicate negotiation.

"It seems contradictory, announcing this makes it less
likely to happen," said Pablo Casas at the Security and
Democracy think tank in Bogota. "If there is a FARC front
holding Betancourt, everyone in the FARC knows which front that
is, and they would take countersecurity measures."


Betancourt was last seen in a rebel video at the end of
last year looking gaunt and despondent in a jungle camp. She is
sick and has been chained up after repeated escape bids, say
former hostages recently freed by the rebels.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made freeing
Betancourt a foreign policy priority for his government.

Two top guerrilla commanders have been extradited to the
United States. The FARC wants them included in any deal to swap
hostages for imprisoned rebel fighters.

Latin America's longest-running insurgency, the FARC has
been weakened after billions of dollars in U.S. aid helped
troops retake areas once under rebel control. Violence from the
conflict has dropped sharply, especially in urban areas.

To entice rebels to surrender, Uribe has offered cash
bounties, reduced sentences and residency overseas in countries
such as France to guerrillas who come in from the jungles with
kidnap victims they are guarding.

Following the death in March of the FARC's top chief and
founder, Manuel Marulanda, the rebels have been commanded by
Alfonso Cano, a former student activist who is seen as more
open to possible negotiations with the government.

But Cano could face resistance from the FARC's hard-line
military wing. Any tensions and desertions could prompt
splinter groups to surrender with hostages they are holding as
the FARC struggles to stay united, analysts say.

The FARC, now engaged in Colombia's cocaine trade, want
Uribe to pull troops back from an area the size of New York
City to broker any hostage exchange. But he has refused and
offers a smaller safe haven under international observation.

Date created : 2008-06-14