Colombia's largest rebel army has freed the last of the police and soldiers it has been holding hostage, sparking talk of peace talks while also shifting focus to its remaining kidnapping victims.
On April 2 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released the last of their security force hostages, a group of ten who have been held for more than 12 years. Although initially it was believed that only five would be released yesterday as part of a two-day process, all ten were handed over in the joint operation orchestrated by the Colombian and Brazilian governments, the Red Cross, and activist group Colombians for Peace
The men were picked up in a Brazilian military helicopter, and taken from the jungle to the city of Villavicencio, where they were reunited with relatives and appeared before television cameras waving Colombian flags and punching the air. Afterwards they were flown to Bogota, where President Juan Manuel Santos gave a speech welcoming their return.
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While the release has been widely seen as a sign that negotiations between the government and the guerrilla group are not far off, Santos tempered these hopes somewhat by declaring that the incident was “not enough” to start direct peace talks, according to El Tiempo. Santos then called on the rebels to also free the hundreds of civilian hostages they possess, saying “You must release the kidnapped civilians still held, and must account to the families of each and every one of them.” According to the Fundacion Pais Libre, a Colombian NGO, there are some 405 civilians still being held by the FARC, most of whom have been kidnapped with the intention of extorting their families for their return.
There is much speculation over where those hoping for peace negotiations should go from here. La Silla Vacia claims that the FARC will now expect the government to show some good will towards the group’s imprisoned members, allowing a peace group to visit them and monitor their conditions. Former Justice Minister Jaime Castro told El Tiempo that the government will want to negotiate privately and outside the country with the rebels, likely without declaring a ceasefire.
Unless the FARC offer a major gesture of goodwill (like freeing its civilian hostages) it is highly improbable that talks will occur before 2014, when President Santos is expected to run for re-election. During a second term, Santos does not have to worry about the possible political repercussions of botched negotiations, which could affect a presidential run. This could potentially grant him much more elbow room to open discussions with the FARC.
A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.