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Betancourt leads protests against FARC kidnappings

Text by AFP

Latest update : 2008-11-29

Thousands marched Friday in Colombia's main cities and as far away as Paris and Beijing, to protest kidnappings carried out by FARC rebels during a 44-year-old insurgency. Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt led the Madrid march.

Thousands of people in Colombia, France and Spain turned out Friday to urge Colombian rebel group FARC to free hundreds of hostages, five months after they released Ingrid Betancourt, who fears other captives are being forgotten.

"We are thinking during these moments of those who are chained to a tree, who live in humiliation, we carry this cross with them and we want to relieve them of these chains," said French-Colombian politician Betancourt, heading a march in Madrid.

"We invite the FARC to lay down their arms," added the mother of two who spent six years as a captive of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's biggest guerrilla group intent on overthrowing the government since the 1960s.

Betancourt, 46, who has not returned to Colombia since she was released on July 2 and flown to be with her family in Paris, marched in Madrid alongside Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

In the French capital, Betancourt's sister, Astrid, mother, and mother, Yolanda Pulecio headed up a small demonstration of about 50 people to raise awareness of an estimated 350-700 hostages still held by FARC.

"Just because we got out of this terrible drama, doesn't mean we've forgotten the horror the remaining hostages and their families are going through," Astrid Betancourt told AFP.

Betancourt, a presidential candidate for Colombia's Green party in 2002 when she was abducted, and her family were not heading marches in Bogota for security reasons.

Thousands of Colombians in 200 cities marched Friday under the slogan "United for life and liberty," calling for the release of some 3,000 hostages still being held by the country's armed groups, including FARC.

Reporters in Bogota, Medellin and Cali said the demonstrations were far less numerous than in July 20, when some four million Colombians turned out to voice outrage at the ongoing hostage situation.

Among the FARC captives are 28 so-called "political hostages," who were mostly abducted nine to 10 years ago and whom the rebels are ready to exchange for about 500 of their members jailed by Colombian authorities.

Rally organizers are also demanding an end to disappearances and extra-judicial killings, some of which have been blamed on the army.

Betancourt, who has been a prime mover behind the rallies, said at the end of October: "All of us Colombians must get out and march, and anyone who doesn't should not be at ease with his conscience at Christmas time."

"The hostages' cause has now gained international weight," said Luis Eladio Perez, Betancourt's friend and a former hostage who spent several years in captivity with her.

But since the release of the most well-known hostages, "there is no longer the same pressure on FARC and the government, apart from a few isolated declarations," he told AFP.

France for example had sent a special envoy to negotiate with the FARC but "no longer has any delegates looking for a negotiated solution," he said.

Among the marchers was Roberto Saenz, a local official in Bogota, and the brother of the new FARC leader, Alfonso Cano.

Saenz has been very vocal against the hostage-takings, saying they cannot be justified. But it remains to be seen whether the rallies will have any effect on the rebels, with all negotiations frozen since July 2.

Some analysts say the new generation of FARC leaders, who have taken up the helm of Latin America's longest running insurgency since the death announced on May 25 of the group's founder Manuel Marulanda, have a different profile.

They are university-educated, and more outward-looking and could help smooth the way towards negotiations.

"It is not impossible that the FARC will adopt a more flexible position," said security expert Alfredo Rangel, highlighting that 24 of their most valuable hostages have already been released or freed by military operations this year.

Date created : 2008-11-29