Colombians rally to urge FARC hostages' release

Thousands of people took to the streets across Colombia to pressure FARC rebels to free hostages. Hopes faded for Ingrid Betancourt after a French mission sent to rescue her remained grounded at a Bogota airbase. (Report: K.Spencer, O.Fairclough)


Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Colombia on Friday, waving banners and chanting slogans in an attempt to pressure leftist rebels to free hundreds of hostages they are holding.

Thousands marched to the cries of "We are all Ingrid Betancourt," referring to the highest-profile hostage being held by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Betancourt, a French-Colombian former presidential candidate, was kidnapped in February 2002 and last seen in the past weeks in villages near this steamy Colombian jungle town. According to reports she was emaciated, ill, and near death.

"This is not a day of protest against the FARC or the (right-wing) paramilitaries, but rather in favor of life and the humanization of the conflict," said San Jose Mayor Pedro Arenas at a rally.

The Catholic bishop of Guaviare province, Guillermo Orozco, noted the importance of the protest. "People are showing that they are worried about the fate of the hostages, that they are not passive towards this drama," Orozco told AFP.

Joining the protesters was the wife of the San Jose town jailer, who FARC guerillas abducted in 2006 along with three relatives.

"We want to tell the country and the world that here are four hostages of which nobody talks about," said Janeth Zamudio.

In Bogota, some 5,000 people, according to police estimates, crammed into the downtown Plaza Bolivar. A large banner with a picture of Betancourt hung from the mayor's office, located on the plaza.

Some protesters marched wearing t-shirts with Betancourt's picture. Scores of women rallied wearing Betancourt masks.

Protesters included hostages that the FARC recently released such as Betancourt's close friend Clara Rojas and former legislator Gloria Polanco.

Meanwhile a French mission to try to treat Betancourt faced uncertainty after rebels ruled out any unilateral prisoner release.

"Those held in our camps will only be able to leave freely if there is an exchange of prisoners," top FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Granda said in a statement published on the website of the pro-FARC Bolivarian Press Agency (ABP) on Thursday.

Granda however made the statement on March 19, and the Lima, Peru-based ABP did not say why the statement was re-posted and dated April 3.

A French Falcon 50 airplane was on standby at Catam military airport in Bogota, waiting to carry an international medical team to treat Ingrid Betancourt, should her captors allow it.

On Betancourt, Ana Teresa Bernal, spokeswoman for Redepaz, an NGO among the groups organizing the demonstrations, said: "So long as there is life, there is hope. Once she dies it will be too late."

President Alvaro Uribe's government in recent weeks has stepped up pressure on the rebels. On March 1, it launched a raid inside neighboring Ecuador, killing the number two FARC leader, Raul Reyes.

Last week, the government suggested it would release an unspecified number of rebels from prison if Betancourt were freed.

According to government data there are some 2,800 people being held hostage in Colombia.

The Marxist FARC movement, believed to be holding in total more than 700 people, has been fighting government forces for more than 40 years and controls huge swathes of the country.

It finances itself through the illegal drug trade and hostage-taking.

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