Rebel's death raises doubts for Colombian hostage exchange

( dpa )- The Colombian conflict developed into a loud regional diplomatic crisis following the weekend killing of rebel leader Raul Reyes by Colombian forces on Ecuadorian territory.

However, for all the talking, this atmosphere of tension is bound to have greatest impact on a group of people whose voices cannot be heard: more than 700 hostages held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed

Forces of Colombia (FARC), the most prominent among them Ingrid Betancourt.

"Immediately, (the death of Reyes) can only complicate communication with FARC. Can Ingrid Betancourt, who is apparently on the verge of death, and her companions in misfortune stand the situation any longer?" the French daily Le Monde asked Monday.

Raul Reyes was not only FARC's number two, but also the rebel group's spokesman, and a man with abundant experience in talks with representatives of the international community.

"Reyes was the man with the contacts with the press and with the international community," Le Monde added.

The French daily is quick to note that FARC's number two "was not considered soft," and that his successor could be more inclined to concessions towards a humanitarian agreement. But that successor will first have to be presented and consolidated, if not found.

"It will not be easy for the guerrilla to project another one of its bosses as a representative before foreign countries," the Colombian weekly El Espectador noted.

FARC hostages - some of whom have been held for over 10 years - may by now be accustomed to waiting. But in their case, time means at best inhumane treatment in the Colombian jungle, and at worst death from illness or in combat.

Reyes was FARC's highest-ranking negotiator in peace talks with the government of former Colombian president Andres Pastrana (1998- 2002), and travelled to several European countries with Colombian authorities at the time.

He had high-level contacts with Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - who had brokered the releases of six hostages in the past two months - and, Colombia authorities claimed, with representatives of the Ecuadorian government.

He had dealt with envoys from France and Switzerland seeking to bring on the liberation of former Colombian presidential candidate Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship.

There is no doubt that Reyes was a well-established negotiator.

However, he was also the second-in-command of an insurgent group that has fought the Colombian state for some 40 years, killing thousands of people with a wide variety of means as indiscriminate as anti-personnel landmines.

In an editorial on Monday, the Colombian daily El Tiempo described the rebel leader's death as "a fact that was received by the immense majority of Colombians as a legitimate - and unprecedented - point scored by the state in the long confrontation with FARC."

The daily further called the diplomatic outrage at the operation itself "unheard-of and paradoxical."

Indeed, for many in Colombia, getting closer to the end of the country's internal conflict - which El Tiempo recalled has caused great pain to hundreds of thousands of people - is a priority above securing the release of a few scores of FARC hostages.

El Espectador defined Reyes' death as "a blow to the heart of FARC" and stressed the opinion that with it brought down "the myth that members of the FARC leadership were invulnerable or that they died of old age."

From Colombia's perspective in this dangerous game of South American political poker, the undoubtedly strong blow dealt to FARC with the killing of one of its top leaders beats the undoubtedly strong blow dealt to the chances of a hostage release.

For Colombia, national security is being weighed against the human tragedy of a few. For a majority of Colombians - who twice elected Uribe president without need for a runoff, on a platform based on defeating the guerrillas militarily, without concessions - the choice is clear, and it does not favour the hostages for all their evident suffering.

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