PR coup for Colombian guerrillas

It was more like a wealthy coffee farmer's wedding. White ribbons and streamers fluttered over a dusty town square lined by local dignitaries, diplomats, churchmen and anxious relatives.

Then came the big camouflaged Soviet-made MI-17 helicopters, clattering in from the jungle before disgorging the day's special guests - 200 heavily- armed Colombian Marxist guerrillas and the 70 kidnapped government troops they were setting free.

In an almost-surrealistic PR coup, the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) handed over the young soldiers to their waiting wives and mothers on Sunday in the southern town of Cartagena del Chaira. They had held most of the hostages since overrunning a military base last August, killing 27 soldiers in the government's worst setback of the 30-year guerrilla war.

The quid-pro-quo was not only that the rebels received their best publicity to date, but, through the mediation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Red Cross and the ubiquitous former American president, Jimmy Carter, the government had also agreed to pull out of a 5,000-square mile zone, including Cartagena del Chaira, for a month, to allow the soldiers' release.

That was probably the biggest concession ever made by a government to a South American guerrilla army, and further revealed the weakness of beleaguered President Ernesto Samper, already accused of taking cash from the Cali cocaine cartel during his election campaign. It also threatened to widen differences between Mr Samper and the military over how to prosecute the war against the Farc.

The only military personnel in the agreed zone on Sunday were believed to be the army or air force pilots who flew the MI-17s under the temporary command of International Red Cross representatives. Outside the zone, to be controlled by the Farc until 23 June, military officers were seething.

"This was no humanitarian gesture by the guerrillas. Nor was it generosity on their part," said army commander General Jose Bonett. "It was the end of a kidnapping. Period. We want peace but the only way to have peace is by destroying those who don't keep the peace." He vowed to continue hunting down the estimated 12,000 Farc guerrillas after 23 June in the southern area where the guerrillas often finance themselves by protecting coca fields or cocaine-processing labs run by the big cartels.

Many Colombian peasants in the poor region, near the border with Ecuador, said they felt more secure with the guerrillas than with the army, long criticised for human rights abuses.

"Now, the army is a wounded tiger," said one Jesuit priest, warning that the military may take tougher action or send in feared paramilitary groups against guerrilla collaborators.