Razor wire jail shocks hardened Colombians

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The Independent US

Video footage showing hundreds of Colombian soldiers and policemen penned up in jungle "concentration" camps, some with nylon nooses around their necks, has galvanised public opinion against the President, Andres Pastrana.

Video footage showing hundreds of Colombian soldiers and policemen penned up in jungle "concentration" camps, some with nylon nooses around their necks, has galvanised public opinion against the President, Andres Pastrana.

Pressure is mounting for Mr Pastrana, who has been touring Argentina and Chile this week, either to negotiate with leftist guerrillas for the captives release or to stage a military rescue in the zone from which he pulled out all troops two years ago.

A former kidnap victim himself, Mr Pastrana was elected on a peace ticket and ceded the controversial safe haven to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) for truce talks aimed at ending four decades of insurgency.

Two-thirds of more than 1,500 victims kidnapped this year were civilians, pulled off the road by rebels in raids called "miraculous fishing trips", but the remaining one-third were abducted from the government security forces.

Farc guerrillas, who fund their arms purchases with kidnap ransoms and protection money paid out by cocaine traffickers and coca planters, have built hideouts for their hostages in their jungle tract, which is the size of Switzerland. Military families have complained for years that the government in the capital, Bogota, ignores the fate of kidnapped servicemen, and refuses to consider them as prisoners of war. Instead, they lump them together with other kidnap victims and wring their hands.

The documentary broadcast last weekend by an investigative journalist, Jorge Enrique Botero, included film shot behind the barbed wire by two relatives of military hostages which showed the plight of the policemen and soldiers. The two women hiked for 12 days through jungle with Farc escorts to reach the secret internment camp.

Many viewers protested that the armed compound, where hundreds of captives were surrounded by watch towers and bales of razor wire, evoked Nazi Germany. Leading political commentators demanded access for the Red Cross to "abandoned" prisoners of war, taken in combat.

The Colombian interior minister Humberto de la Calle said in Santiago that the government could soon consider a dialogue with leaders from the Farc about swapping 450 jailed rebels for the 550 policemen and soldiers held in secret jungle internment camps. He told reporters that these negotiations would have to be delayed until the case was settled of Arnubio Ramos, a prisoner who hijacked an aircraft last month and forced it to land in San Vicente del Caguan, the capital of the rebel haven known as "Farclandia".

This would be a U-turn for Mr Pastrana, who has resisted all calls for prisoner exchanges. Senator Juan Manuel Ospina, who participated in government talks with the rebels last year, said: "We have to make some decisions. The government can't continue ignoring this situation."

Human rights activists worry that to release hundreds of hardened criminals and captured Farc guerrillas might set the stage for a blanket amnesty. For the ordinary citizens of Colombia, caught in a three-way civil war, the climate of fear is bound to increase.

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