BOGOTA A Colombian FARC rebel has offered to release French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and other guerrilla captives in exchange for protection from extradition, President Alvaro Uribe said on Friday.
Efforts to negotiate with the FARC over its hostages, who have been held for as long as a decade in jungle camps, are stalled. But the rebels have been weakened by recent deaths of three commanders and desertions fueled by government bounties.
Uribe said Colombia's intelligence agency, DAS, has responded by offering the guerrilla protection from extradition should the hostages be freed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But he gave few details or names.
"We sent a note to the guerrilla who offered to hand over Ingrid Betancourt and other kidnap victims," he said. "The DAS director send it with my authorization, saying there will be no extradition if this goes through. We hope this is true."
Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, was kidnapped more than five years ago while campaigning. She is the FARC hostage with the highest profile. Others include three U.S. defense contractors kidnapped in 2003.
Uribe's announcement may signal a bid by FARC members to break away and surrender with hostages as the rebels struggle to remain united and come under more pressure from the military.
But some analysts questioned why Uribe would make public such a delicate negotiation.
"It seems contradictory, announcing this makes it less likely to happen," said Pablo Casas at the Security and Democracy think tank in Bogota. "If there is a FARC front holding Betancourt, everyone in the FARC knows which front that is, and they would take countersecurity measures."
FARC CHANGE AT THE TOP
Betancourt was last seen in a rebel video at the end of last year looking gaunt and despondent in a jungle camp. She is sick and has been chained up after repeated escape bids, say former hostages recently freed by the rebels.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made freeing Betancourt a foreign policy priority for his government.
Two top guerrilla commanders have been extradited to the United States. The FARC wants them included in any deal to swap hostages for imprisoned rebel fighters.
Latin America's longest-running insurgency, the FARC has been weakened after billions of dollars in U.S. aid helped troops retake areas once under rebel control. Violence from the conflict has dropped sharply, especially in urban areas.
To entice rebels to surrender, Uribe has offered cash bounties, reduced sentences and residency overseas in countries such as France to guerrillas who come in from the jungles with kidnap victims they are guarding.
Following the death in March of the FARC's top chief and founder, Manuel Marulanda, the rebels have been commanded by Alfonso Cano, a former student activist who is seen as more open to possible negotiations with the government.
But Cano could face resistance from the FARC's hard-line military wing. Any tensions and desertions could prompt splinter groups to surrender with hostages they are holding as the FARC struggles to stay united, analysts say.
The FARC, now engaged in Colombia's cocaine trade, want Uribe to pull troops back from an area the size of New York City to broker any hostage exchange. But he has refused and offers a smaller safe haven under international observation.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Xavier Briand)