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FARC rebels release hostage held for 12 years

Does the liberation of two captives signal the FARC is open to prisoner exchanges and eventual peace negotiations?

Released FARC hostage Colombian Army Sergeant Pablo Emilio Moncayo waves with his father Gustavo Moncayo, following his release on March 30, 2010. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTA, Colombia — For more than 12 years, the family of Sgt. Pablo Emilio Moncayo received only periodic assurances the captured soldier was alive. They heard reports from former hostages and saw proof-of-life photos sent by the country’s main rebel group.

But shortly before sunset Tuesday, Moncayo stepped out of a helicopter onto the tarmac in the town of Florencia. His father, who had trekked across the country with chains attached to his wrists to draw attention to his son's plight, was waiting. He was still wearing the chains as he embraced his son, who was dressed in camouflage fatigues.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced last April it would be willing to free Moncayo, 31, but negotiations among the rebels, government, the group Colombians for Peace and the Catholic Church dragged on for a year. Another soldier, Josue Calvo, 23, was handed over Sunday after spending almost a year in captivity with five bullet wounds.

Their release has generated not only relief and jubilation, but also questions over whether the liberations could open the door for further hostage releases and eventual peace negotiations with the FARC, a Marxist insurgency that has been fighting the government since the 1960s.

“We hope these two liberations will open up political space for a humanitarian agreement,” said Ivan Cepeda of Colombians for Peace, the group led by leftist Sen. Piedad Cordoba that helped broker the releases.

Advocacy groups and family members of hostages are pushing for an agreement that would swap the FARC's remaining political hostages for FARC fighters in jail. It is the only agreement the FARC has said it would support. Colombians for Peace says a prisoner exchange would lay the groundwork for broader peace talks, and be accompanied by promises by the FARC to stop its kidnappings and recruitment of child soldiers.

The FARC continues to hold more than 20 police and soldiers hostage as political bargaining chips, as well as an undetermined number for extortion. The rebel group has seen its ranks cut by about half to an estimated 10,000 during President Alvaro Uribe’s administration, due to military offensives and desertion. But attacks and violence continue, and many Colombians favor a negotiated settlement rather than military defeat.

Past attempts at an accord between the FARC and government have either failed or never gotten fully off the ground. In 1999, the government pulled troops out of an area the size of Switzerland for talks with the FARC but by the time it called off the negotiations, the FARC had used the interim three years to bolster its strength.

“There is great distrust from both government and the FARC,” said Alan Jara, a former governor who was kidnapped for eight years before the FARC released him in 2009. “But these liberations could generate confidence to advance the idea of a humanitarian agreement.”