Freedom edges closer for Colombian hostages

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The release of 62 high-profile Colombian hostages, including the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, looked to be imminent yesterday as the government inched closer to crucial talks with the left-wing FARC guerrilla movement.

A Colombian politician who has had contact with both sides, former senator Alvaro Leyva, said many of the conditions for holding talks had now been fulfilled. "They can't miss this chance. We just have to keep on building trust," he said over the weekend. Both the government and FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have indicated their willingness to negotiate face to face ­ as, indeed, they have for the past couple of years. Both sides, however, have laid down conditions for talks that suggest they are still some distance apart.

Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's pro-US president who first came to office as a hardliner determined to smash FARC by force, has slowly softened his stance in the face of public demands for a truce. He has said that he won't release any of the 500 FARC prisoners in his custody unless he receives an assurance first that they have renounced violence.

But he has also given serious consideration to the creation of a demilitarised zone in the municipalities of Florida y Pradera in the south of the country ­ agreeing, essentially, to withdraw Colombia's armed forces from the area in exchange for the release of the hostages. The hostages include three US defence contractors, politicians and military officers as well as Ms Betancourt, the half-French politician who was running against Mr Uribe on an anti-corruption ticket in 2002 when she was abducted.

If any deal is to take place, though, the devil is in the detail. The government wants FARC to lay down its arms in the proposed demilitarised zone, but FARC says it wants to be the sole arbiter of that question. FARC, according to a communique on the group's website, "will rely on its own security measures" and still regards itself as "engaged in an armed uprising". FARC is also demanding the release of two members held by the US.

In the Florida y Pradera municipalities themselves, hope for peace is offset by anxiety that the area might simply be overrun by FARC. "If we have the guerrillas here in Florida, then we'll have to leave the town," a car salesman, Eduardo Gutierrez, said. "We agree the meetings should be in this region, but a little further from the urban zone."

Nobody has forgotten, either, what happened when Mr Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, ceded a large chunk of territory to FARC in 1999 in what was supposed to be a goodwill gesture to kickstart the peace process. FARC took advantage of its new haven in and around San Vicente del Caguan to export drugs, import arms, build up its strength and then go out and launch a series of high-profile operations including an airline hijacking and several kidnappings including Ms Betancourt's. The talks went nowhere for three years before collapsing.

President Uribe has made it clear he won't stand for a repeat of the Caguan fiasco. His government has not backed off its tough rhetoric about FARC, describing the group as a terrorist organisation which kills peasants with impunity. At the same time, though, the appetite for some kind of a deal is undeniable. Both sides have issued a flurry of statements over the past few weeks, suggesting a greater willingness to talk.

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