Colombia's Farc rebels to free all captives

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to release 'prisoners of war' and give up practice of kidnapping

Colombia's largest rebel group, which was once responsible for most of the world's kidnappings, has announced it will stop abducting people for ransom.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) said it would free the remaining 10 police and soldiers it is holding, some of whom have been in captivity in the jungle for 14 years.

"We announce that from this date on, we prohibit this practice in our revolutionary actions,'' the group said in a statement signed by Farc's seven-member ruling secretariat.

No date has been set for the release of the servicemen but it is thought that it will take place in the next two months.

The statement suggested that negotiations should be launched to find a peaceful settlement to the country's 46-year civil war. "For our part, we believe that there are no more excuses for not starting talks,'' said the statement released on Sunday.

Farc's commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known as Timochenko, who took over in November his predecessor Alfonso Cano was killed by the army, has repeatedly called for peace talks with the government.

President Juan Manuel Santos said the Farc's decision to abandon kidnapping was a positive sign, but was not enough to start talks. "It's an important and necessary step, but it's not sufficient,'' he said.

The government demands the Farc cease all its hostile actions before talks can begin, but while Sunday's announcement is couched in terms of an olive branch, the group has killed dozens of people in a series of attacks across the country, particularly in the south.

The group, which is labelled a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, made no reference to abandoning extortion, which has also been a source of funding for the group.

Former President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who launched a major offensive against the rebels during his two terms of office, denounced the Farc statement as more "trickery".

He suggested the Farc might abandon financial kidnappings but would continue taking police and soldiers.

Over the past 20 years, kidnapping became a central tool for the Farc both to raise funds and to pressure the government to released imprisoned rebels.

But the tactic was widely reviled, earning condemnation even by leftwing groups sympathetic to the rebels' political aims. The revulsion was heightened by the dire conditions in which hostages were kept. Many werechained at the neck for years in camps deep in the jungle.

The Farc has kidnapped presidential candidates, US defence contractors, former ministers, business leaders and hundreds of soldiers and police – as well as thousands of ordinary Colombians.

In the late 1990s, there were as many as than 3,000 reported abductions each year, making Colombia the kidnap capital of the world.

That started to change after Uribe took power in 2002, promising to defeat the Farc. He boosted the number of police and soldiers across the country, driving the rebels back into their jungle strongholds and helping to push down the number of abductions.

The Farc's decision will help to continue that trend, but it will not banish the practice from Colombia.

Newly formed narco-militias and common criminals are increasingly responsible for kidnappings.


Toby Muse in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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