Some 20,000 people marched Friday throughout Colombia "for the life and the freedom" of hostages held by rebel groups in the troubled South American country. ( dpa )
The demonstrations had been organized by the non-governmental organization Red Paz, in a country where some 3,000 people are thought to be currently deprived of their freedom at the hands of leftist guerrillas, extreme-right paramilitaries and common criminal organizations.
Demonstrators especially called for the release of hostages who are sick, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Betancourt, 46, the most high-profile hostage held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was kidnapped in February 2002 and is currently believed to very ill.
The main demonstration took place in the central Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota, where citizens whistled and held banners with slogans like, "They took them alive, we expect them back alive."
The march - supported by private companies and by private and state schools - was attended by several former hostages of FARC.
On February 4, a protest against FARC gathered a much more numerous crowd, while a march was also held March 6 in support of the victims of Colombia's extreme-right paramilitaries.
The release in January and February of six former politicians who had been held by FARC since 2001-2002 encouraged some hope that more could be freed. But the rebel group has warned that there will be no more unilateral releases and that only an exchange of prisoners with the government will allow more hostages to be free again.
FARC is believed to have 740 hostages. The group has been in talks to exchange 40 of them - soldiers, police officers and politicians - for 500 of their members currently in prison.
Last week, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe reiterated that his government was ready to exchange FARC rebels for Betancourt and other hostages.
A medical team sponsored by France arrived in Colombia Thursday in an effort to administer medical aid to Betancourt. The team was hoping to receive jungle coordinates from FARC for the doctors, but the rebels have given no signal that they will cooperate. Betancourt suffers from hepatitis B, leishmaniasis, malaria and severe malnutrition, and last week was described by an eyewitness as suffering from depression.