French and Swiss envoys meet with FARC

2nd July 2008, Comments 0 comments

European envoys made direct contact with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leaders for the first time ever in an undisclosed location in the jungle.

2 July 2008

COLOMBIA - Mediators from France and Switzerland met with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at an undisclosed location in the jungle in an effort to win the release of dozens of hostages held by the rebels, media reports said Tuesday.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe gave the representatives permission to meet with FARC leader Alfonso Cano and the two diplomats set out for their meeting last weekend.

It was the first time European officials have made direct contact with the guerrillas, and the first time that attempts at peace talks have been made under the command of Cano, who took over the leadership after the death of the rebel group's founder, Manuel Marulanda, in March.

Former French consul in Bogotá Nöel Sáenz and Swiss diplomat Jean-Pierre Gontard are also hoping to jump-start peace talks that stalled over a disagreement between the Colombian government and the FARC regarding the establishment of a demilitarised zone in which the rebels could begin releasing captives.

The Uribe government fears that the FARC would use the zone - as large as New York City, according to the FARC proposal - for its drug trafficking activities.

The guerrillas said that they are willing to release at least 40 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US government contractors, in exchange for the release of 500 FARC prisoners, many of whom have signed statements renouncing the group as part of an effort by Uribe's government to reincorporate them into society.

"The government has given all guarantees for this mission," a top Colombian official told Reuters. "We know that this is advancing."

Past talks involving Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, including a much-publicised encounter in December, failed when Marulanda reportedly backed off from handing over the hostages. Álvaro Villarraga, of Colombia's National Council for Peace, said the meeting with the EU officials was crucial because it hinted that the FARC were giving peace talks another chance.

"It's possible that the FARC want to open different channels of dialogue, including reopening contacts with Venezuela," Villarraga told the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.

Cano, a former university student, is seen as more of a moderate than Marulanda but some experts believe that he lacks the clout to keep hardliner rebels happy.

[El Pais / M. Delfin / Expatica]

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