Colombia's FARC announces halt to kidnapping

February 26, 2012 - 7:05 PM
APTOPIX Colombia Protest

A police officer holds a photograph of a fellow officer, who was kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the main square during a protest to demand his freedom in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's main rebel group said Sunday it is abandoning the practice of kidnapping and will soon free its last remaining "prisoners of war" — 10 security force members held for as long as 14 years.

The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced on its website that it would no longer kidnap civilians "for financial ends," unequivocally renouncing for the first time a tool it long used against Colombia's well-heeled as well as foreigners.

It is not clear whether an order has been given to release ransom-kidnapping victims currently held by the rebels, whose number is not known. Nor is it clear, given the insurgency's decentralized nature, whether the FARC's ruling seven-man secretariat can enforce its order.

The rebels are known to currently hold four foreigners, all Chinese oil workers abducted last June.

The FARC statement said kidnapping of civilians for ransom had helped sustain the insurgency, but added: "From this day on we are halting the practice in our revolutionary activity." It did not provide a date for the release of the 10 security force members, two fewer than the government has said the insurgents hold.

Sunday's announcement could advance prospects for a peace dialogue sought by the rebels. The government has insisted the FARC end all kidnappings as a minimal first step.

The rebels did not say, however, that they were abandoning hostilities. They have recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks and the military blames them for a bombing and mortar attack on two police posts in the past month that killed 15 people and wounded nearly 100, most of them civilians.

President Juan Manuel Santos responded to the FARC announcement positively but cautiously via Twitter. He called it "an important and necessary, if insufficient, step in the right direction."

Alvaro Uribe, president in 2002-10, called it "deceitful" in a tweet.

Analysts expressed skepticism FARC leaders will be able to enforce it.

"One would think that in such a fragmented organization it won't happen uniformly at all levels," said Alejo Vargas, a political scientist at Colombia's National University. He recalled that during 1980s peace negotiations the rebels told then-President Belisario Betancur's government that they would stop kidnapping but did not keep their word.

The FARC's fronts are widely dispersed and operate with relative autonomy, so there was no indication Sunday's announcement would augur imminent releases.

In the 1990s, kidnappings by the FARC or by criminal gangs that sold abductees to the rebels helped make Colombia the world's kidnapping capital. Rural highways became perilous with "miracle fishing" by laptop-toting rebels who employed chamber of commerce databases at roadblocks to identify the wealthy.

Weakened by military pressure, the rebels have since been hard pressed to house and feed hostages.

The practice has also bred societal contempt for the FARC.

"Kidnapping has been very costly politically," said analyst Arial Avila of the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank.

There is also the question of whether the rebel's current leader, Timoleon Jimenez, has the influence over FARC rank-and-file that its founding leader Manuel Marulanda wielded.

Marulanda died of natural causes in 2008.

The FARC has been releasing captives piecemeal since early in that year, and some have been rescued by the military in operations such as the daring July 2008 ruse that freed group including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.

As defense minister in 2006-09, Santos oversaw operations that struck major blows to the FARC and led to unprecedented rebel desertions. Colombia's military has since tracked down and killed the rebels' two top leaders including Alfonso Cano, Marulanda's successor.

The FARC, which has about 9,000 fighters, said Sunday it was revoking a "law" that its general staff approved in 2000, when Colombia's government ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of the country to the rebels for peace talks that failed two years later.

Analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America noted that last Monday was the 10th anniversary of the collapse of those talks, "which were carried out by a different set of FARC leaders. These (new) leaders must be feeling very isolated politically."

There was no halt in FARC hostilities during those talks, which collapsed with the rebels' high-profile kidnapping of a lawmaker, Jorge Eduardo Gechem. who would spend six years in rebel captivity before being freed.

The rebels and the government have not provided any figures on how many civilians are currently held, but analysts say FARC revenues from ransom kidnappings now represent only a sliver of income for a group whose main revenue source is the cocaine trade.

Colombia's anti-kidnapping police said the FARC kidnapped 72 people during the first 11 months of 2011.

The director of the citizen group Pais Libre, Olga Lucia Gomez, said it estimates at least 500 Colombians are now being held for ransom, with the FARC and the country's No. 2 rebel band, the National Liberation Army holding fewer victims than criminal gangs.

In December, the FARC announced it would free six security force members. But a month later it said it was delaying the release because of a government "militarization" of the area where the release was planned.

Brazil, which has provided the International Red Cross with helicopters in past FARC liberations, subsequently agreed to help broker it.

In November, FARC fighters executed three police officers and a soldier when soldiers apparently happened upon their jungle camp. The FARC later said it had been intending to free them.

Latin America's last major rebel movement, the FARC was founded in 1964. The United States and European Union consider it a terrorist organization.

In the 1980s, the FARC's kidnappings and extortion led wealthy ranchers and drug lords to create private far-right militias that evolved into criminal gangs known as paramilitaries.

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Associated Press writer Libardo Cardona reported this story in Bogota and Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writer Vivian Sequera in Carcas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.