FARC rebels release hostage held for 12 years

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.”

Some analysts say the rebel group needs to take convincing steps, such as liberating all political hostages, to show Colombians it is genuinely interested in eventual peace negotiations. “This would be well-received by Colombian society,” said Luis Eduardo Celis of Nuevo Arco Iris, a think tank that studies the conflict.

The FARC has said Calvo and Moncayo are the last hostages it will offer unilaterally. Cordoba has brokered the freedom of 12 former hostages since 2008. Some analysts say it is unrealistic to expect the FARC to let go of its most important bargaining tools unless the government makes promises in return.

But the government is resistant to go along with a prisoner exchange and refuses to return insurgents to a rebel force it is trying to destroy. Uribe has said he can’t accept an arrangement that would cede control to a terrorist group and go against the principles of his hard-line “democratic security policy,” a largely military approach to bringing security to various parts of the country.

Uribe’s critics accuse him of playing politics with hostages’ lives, and say humanitarian motivations should override political ones. “This [a prisoner exchange] is not a concession to the guerrilla. This is a concession to life and to liberty,” said Jara, the former hostage.

Uribe's comments following Calvo's release have many hoping the government will change its tune. Uribe said the government does not oppose a humanitarian agreement provided released guerrillas do not return to the FARC. "The president has always said he is open to conversation if there is good faith on both sides,” said Frank Pearl, the government’s representative in the liberation negotiations and high commissioner for peace.

An editorial published this week in Colombia’s newsweekly magazine Semana said the timing is right for Uribe to push for an agreement with the FARC before he leaves office in August, pointing out that exercising flexibility at the end of his term won’t jeopardize his hard-line reputation. “It could be an occasion to show that finally he not only has a strong hand, but a big heart,” wrote Semana.

Advocates for a humanitarian pact say time should not be wasted. “The next step has to be very fast to save the lives of those in the jungle,” said Jara. “Life itself cannot be politicized.”