Brazil helicopters set for Colombia hostage handover
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Brazilian helicopter crews are standing by near the Colombian border to fly in and pick up two soldiers that FARC rebels plan to free to the Red Cross, the Colombian government said on Wednesday.
Pablo Emilio Moncayo, held captive for a dozen years in the jungle, and Josue Daniel Calvo could be released within two days once the government has the coordinates for the handover by the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel force.
"At this moment, the helicopters are at a point near the border with Brazil. We are waiting for the precise location where the operation will take place," Peace Commissioner Frank Pearl told reporters in Bogota.
The leftist FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is still holding 24 police officers and soldiers in secret jungle camps as leverage in its four-decade-old war against the state.
Once a powerful peasant army that kidnapped and bombed at will, the FARC has been driven back into remote jungles by Colombia's U.S.-backed military. Rebels are now deeply engaged in cocaine trafficking and have very little support among Colombians.
Leftist Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who is mediating the release, said last week the rebels had given her the coordinates for the handover. She said Calvo, kidnapped last year and now seriously ill, would be released first.
The FARC had said a year ago it would release the two men but the handover become entangled in political squabbling between the rebels and President Alvaro Uribe's government, which has taken a hard line against the guerrilla force.
Uribe, whose father was killed two decades ago in a FARC kidnapping attempt, says the military will temporarily halt operations to allow the handover. But he accuses the FARC of trying to score political points with the releases.
Moncayo has become a symbol for those still held in the jungles even as Latin America's oldest running insurgency ebbs. He was snatched in a 1997 attack on an army post and has been seen only occasionally in rebel videos.
Uribe remains popular for taking the fight to the FARC rebels, who have been battered to their weakest in decades. But peace talks are unlikely as whoever replaces Uribe in May's presidential election is seen continuing his tough security policies.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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