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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?

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.”