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The FARC's cynical stunt

The Colombian rebel group's recent hostage release was just a ploy. If it wants political credibility, it must renounce violence and free all its captives.

February 04, 2009

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has funded its war against the government with drug trafficking and kidnappings for ransom, has released four hostages: three police officers and a soldier. Two more are to be released in coming days, according to a senior rebel leader, as a gesture of goodwill. But the time for gestures is long past. If the FARC's aim is political credibility, it needs to demonstrate a complete rejection of lawless behavior and release the hundreds of other captives it still holds in the jungle.

Last year was a bad one for the FARC, a Marxist revolutionary organization that has bedeviled the Colombian government since the 1960s but is at the lowest ebb in its history. Its longtime leader, Pedro Antonio Marin, better known as Manuel Marulanda, died, and another commander, Raul Reyes, was killed by the Colombian military while encamped in Ecuador. Hundreds of rebels left the forest and surrendered, accepting a government offer of leniency to those who demilitarized. The Colombian military hoodwinked the guerrillas into handing over their highest-profile hostages, including Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American military contractors. Popular sentiment is squarely on the side of the conservative government and President Alvaro Uribe, and hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets last year in anti-FARC, pro-peace demonstrations.

A left-wing group calling itself Colombians for Peace helped negotiate Sunday's hostage release, and in strictly humanitarian terms, it should be celebrated. The FARC's hostages suffer in the extreme, and freedom for any of them is cause for rejoicing. But the guerrillas still have hundreds of captives, many of whom are former police officers, soldiers or government officials they claim are legitimate "prisoners of war." This assertion is absurd. Details of the torment endured by these captives have emerged over the past years, and by no measure do the rebels adhere to internationally accepted standards of prisoner treatment.

Nor has the FARC changed its stripes and renounced violence. Monday night, a car bomb in Cali killed three people and wounded more than 30, and last week, two people were killed in a bombing attack in Bogota; the government says the FARC is responsible. In this context, the release of these latest prisoners must be seen for what it is: a stunt intended to revive public support for an unworthy cause.

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