Colombia's FARC rebels free eight hostages
Colombia's FARC guerrillas have released eight hostages in the first such handover since the rebel group was tricked in a military operation to free Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other captives on July 2, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.
The eight Afro-Colombians were kidnapped last week by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while travelling on the country's northwestern jungle rivers.
Their release to the Red Cross in the province of Choco appeared to allay concerns about the organization's ability to work effectively in Colombia after its symbol was improperly used by the military in the July rescue.
"The operation was made possible through discreet dialogue between the parties concerned," said Yves Heller, ICRC spokesman in Colombia. "We continue to work as a neutral mediator."
The 44-year-old FARC holds hundreds of Colombians for ransom and political leverage.
The military has pushed the guerrillas onto the defensive this year with a series of strikes using information provided by deserters who are fleeing FARC ranks in record numbers.
"As the FARC starts to fragment we expect to see more kidnappings as individual fronts grow desperate for money," said Cesar Restrepo, an analyst at Security and Democracy, a Bogota think tank.
"If these eight hostages were set free it was only because their families could not pay," Restrepo said.
Freed hostage Horacio Palacios said the guerrillas told the eight to pass the message to local river taxi owners that their boats will be sunk and their captains killed if they do not make protection payments to the FARC.
Aid groups protested last week after the government said it improperly used the Red Cross symbol when soldiers duped the FARC into handing over French-Colombian politician Betancourt by posing as aid workers.
She, three American defence contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and police officers were rescued after years of being chained up in secret jungle camps. The dramatic mission highlighted the success of President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed offensive against the guerrillas.
But the use of the Red Cross symbol raised questions about the operation. Falsely portraying military personnel as Red Cross members is against the Geneva Conventions as it could put humanitarian workers at risk when they are in war zones.
"It is important that all parties in Colombia's conflict continue to trust our organization and respect the Red Cross emblem," Heller said, according to Reuters.