Hostage release raises hopes of an end to Colombia's 48-year civil war

President welcomes 10 captives, but says Farc rebels must make more concessions

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The Independent US

New hopes for an end to the 48-year civil conflict in Colombia were flickering yesterday after its leftist guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, released the last 10 of its military and police hostages and pledged to end all further civilian kidnappings for ransom.

The six policemen and four soldiers, some of whom had been held in remote rebel encampments for 14 years, were flown out of the jungle on Monday aboard a loaned Brazilian army helicopter marked with the Red Cross symbol. After meeting their families they were airlifted to Bogota for debriefings and medical check-ups.

"I shouted! I jumped up and down!" one mother, Olivia Solarte, exclaimed after hearing that her son was to be set free at last. She had not seen him in more than a decade.

Another of the men was reunited with a teenage son who was only four years old when he last saw him. Some stepped from the helicopter with pets, which included a monkey, a peccary and two small birds.

"We all were singing in the helicopter, full of emotions," said Piedad Cordoba, a former senator and the head of Colombians for Peace, which worked with the Red Cross on the operation.

The release of the hostages offers Colombians a glimpse of a future no longer marred by the Farc uprising that has been fuelled by money from cocaine and ransom demands. In the late 1990s, the rebels controlled half of the countryside but in recent years they have been driven deep into jungle areas. Much of the Farc leadership has been killed by government troops aided by billions of dollars in US training and assistance.

If the remaining Farc leadership is hoping the hostage release will spur the government to accept its request for peace negotiations, it may be disappointed. President Juan Manuel Santos, who as Defence Minister under his predecessor led the effort to turn back the tide on the Farc, signalled in a national address that he expected more concessions before talks could begin. Releasing the hostages was "a step in the right direction, a very important step", he conceded.

"We share in the joy of these releases and we especially appreciate the pledge by the Farc to stop kidnapping," Mr Santos said. But he cautioned that notion of peace talks beginning soon was "pure speculation", adding: "When the government considers that sufficient conditions and guarantees exist to begin a process that brings an end to the conflict, the country will know."

Human rights groups estimate that up to 400 hostages taken by the Farc since 1996 remain unaccounted for. Nor has the violence ended. In March, the Farc killed 11 soldiers near the Venezuelan border. Government forces responded with an aerial bombardment that reportedly killed 60 of the insurgents. Another 36 rebels were killed by government forces a week ago.

The Colombian government estimates that the Farc, founded in 1964, still has around 9,000 loyal fighters encamped in the jungle.