Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Relatives of Colombian hostages demand Chavez mediation

Keith Stansell is held prisoner by Farc rebels in Colombia

Female Guerrilla deserts to Army with 4 year old prisoner

On Dec 4, a female member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC to use the Spanish acronym) escaped from a jungle base along with a four year old boy that was in her custody. According to the Colombian Army, Brian Rincon was kidnapped in June of this year from his kindergarten in the city of Cucuta, in the northern province of Santander. The small boy was taken to a jungle base of the FARC´s 10th Front where he was placed under the care of the woman whose name has not been revealed. A few days later FARC contacted Brian's parents and demanded a ransom of 500 million Colombian pesos (approximately US$245,000). However after nearly six months in her care, the woman took pity of Brian and decided to run away from the base and deliver the boy back to his family. Such was the bond created between the former guerilla and the boy that at first Brian refused to go with his real mother and instead demanded to continue with the woman that seems to be in her mid twenties. The woman also informed the Colombian Army that there are more children being held hostage in the jungle on the border with Venezuela.
This event adds further importance to the recent negotiations that have been carried out between the President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe
and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, in order to organize an exchange of prisoners between the Colombian government and FARC.
On Nov 30, Uribe angered the relatives of the many hostages held by FARC after refusing to continue negotiating with Chavez. The relatives claim that Chavez was near to convincing the leader of FARC, Manuel Marulanda also known as "Tirofijo" (The Sureshot in Spanish), to release hundreds of Army officers, politicians and civilians imprisoned in the rebel bases. Today the mother of Ingrid Betancourt, a member of the Colombian congress that was captured by FARC five years ago has traveled to Caracas, Venezuela and asked President Chavez to continue negotiating in spite of Uribe´s refusal. Since Betancourt has dual nationality, the president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, also met recently with Chavez to discuss the progress of the negotiations. Sarkozy recently proposed to Uribe and FARC that a demilitarized zone be created in some part of FARC controlled territory so that the prisoners can be exchanged. Also the U.S government is interested in reaching a solution since among the prisoners held by FARC are three American military advisers. In February 2003, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Mark Gonsalves were piloting a Colombian airplane over FARC territory when the rebels shot it down with a Stinger missile. Since then the three Americans have been imprisoned in an unknown FARC base deep in the Colombian jungle.

Thomas Howes, American military adviser currently prisoner in Colombia

Only a few days ago, the Colombian Army captured some young women as they headed from the jungle towards a city. Inside their belongings the Army soldiers discovered photos of Ingrid Betancourt, the three Americans and many other hostages that may have been taken very recently, as well as letters for their relatives. It seems that FARC tried to keep the promise made to Hugo Chavez that "proof of life" would be delivered before continuing with negotiations. The relatives have also criticized the Army for revealing the content of the mail, among which are a letter from Keith Stansell to his Colombian wife and last will testaments by the other two Americans.
In an interview earlier this year with Clarin , a well known Argentine newspaper, the spokesman of FARC, Raul Reyes explained why Betancourt and the three Americans are kept as prisoners and also what FARC demands from the Colombian government.

Clarin Reporter : Why has it taken so long to free the prisoners, since some have been held for as long as ten years in the jungle?

Raul Reyes : The last time we negotiated with the government, we released 300 Army soldiers and only 14 of our members that were ill were released. Betancourt has not been "held hostage", to us she is a political prisoner because she is part of the system that were are fighting against.

C.R: What about the three Americans that you hold since 2003?
They are north American agents. FARC did not capture them in
Washington, Nueva York, Texas or Boston, but as they spied in Colombian territory .

C.R : The U.S Government says they are civil contractors......

R.R : That's a big lie. They were spying in Colombia, violating our sovereignty and independence. So we will only release them in exchange for our leaders Simon Trinidad and Sonia that are jailed in the United States, as well as the rest of our troops that are prisoners in Colombian jails.

C.R: Chavez offered his territory to do the prisoner swap. Do you accept this?
R.R: Through Clarin, I want to thank President Chavez for this gesture, for his generosity with Colombia and the relatives of the prisoners. However we have decided that this is a problem caused by the internal conflict in Colombia, so the swap must be done in Colombian territory.

C.R: So you refuse to hand over prisoners in Venezuela?

R.R: Yes, what we want is that first a demilitarized zone be created in Colombia before exchanging prisoners. We also want President Chavez to continue contributing in order to reach an agreement with the Government.

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