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Colombia's FARC rebel group frees 4 hostages

The leftist guerrillas release the three policemen and one soldier to the Red Cross. Two more hostages are to be freed this week.

February 02, 2009|Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombian rebels released four hostages to the international Red Cross on Sunday and have promised to hand over two more kidnapping victims this week.

The release of three policemen and one soldier -- who had each been held at least 20 months -- in southeastern Caqueta state was almost scuttled by Colombian military flights nearby, according to a journalist who was present.

Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo denied the journalist's report, saying the deal did not prohibit flights above a certain altitude. The charges were made by Jorge Enrique Botero, formerly a reporter with Telesur, a Venezuela state broadcaster.

Those freed were policemen Alexis Torres Zapata, Juan Fernando Galicia and Jose Walter Lozano; and soldier William Giovanni Rodriguez. The four were flown to the Colombian city of Villavicencio aboard helicopters lent by Brazil and were scheduled to meet later Sunday night with President Alvaro Uribe.

"Mothers have a sixth sense and I dreamed that among those released next would be my son," Galicia's mother, Mariana Uribe, said in an interview. "When I see him I'll bring him steak and French fries and some chocolate."

The freeing of the hostages by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was the first since last year, when the group released six hostages with Venezuela's mediation. In July, military commandos rescued three U.S. defense contractors, Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 others.

The FARC is believed to still be holding more than 700 hostages. Among them are 24 whom it has described as "exchangeable" for rebels in government custody. Some of those hostages have been held as long as 10 years.

Among the 24 are the two other hostages set for release this week: Meta state Gov. Alan Jara and former provincial legislator Sigifredo Lopez. Jara was taken in 2001, Lopez in 2002.

Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a Uribe critic, was authorized by the government to help in the turnover. She was present at the release and accompanied the hostages to Villavicencio.

The FARC released the hostages in response to an open letter sent last year by a group of intellectuals and politicians called Colombians for Peace. The rebels set no conditions for the release.

"Let's hope this is a door leading to the release of all those kidnapped," said Marlen Orjuela, president of an association of abductees' families. "It's time the government and the FARC thought humanely."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

Gonzalez is a special correspondent.

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