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BOGOTA (Reuters) - An offer from U.S. lawmakers to witness negotiations to free 61 hostages, including three Americans, held for years by Colombian rebels could help clinch a prisoner swap, Colombia said on Thursday.
The Colombian government wants to exchange 61 politicians and other high-profile hostages held in secret jungle camps for an unspecified number of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas in government prisons. But the two sides have yet to agree on terms for starting talks.
Seven U.S. House of Representatives members wrote a letter to Colombia earlier this month offering to accompany any future negotiations with the 17,000-member rebel army known by its Spanish initials FARC.
"The most important thing is the offer from these Congress members to go to the negotiation zone as guarantors. We believe this could help give confidence to the FARC, which has always been afraid to enter talks," Colombian peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo told local radio on Thursday.
The FARC, concerned for the safety of its negotiators, wants Colombia to withdraw government troops from a rural area nearly the size of New York City to negotiate the exchange.
President Alvaro Uribe says he is considering the idea but may instead try to rescue the kidnap victims, an option rejected by families of the hostages as too risky.
U.S. defense contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were captured after their plane crashed in the jungle during a drug-eradication mission in 2003.
The FARC is also holding French-Colombian national Ingrid Betancourt, taken during her 2002 presidential campaign.
"I believe the way to reunite these families is through an exchange," Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Reuters. "If we can do that it could be a step toward other talks aimed at bringing an end to the conflict."
The 61 hostages are but a few of the estimated 3,170 kidnap victims held by the FARC, other rebel groups and common criminals in Colombia, according to government figures.
The guerrillas were organized in the 1960s to force land reforms and other measures meant to close the wide gap that separates rich and poor in this Andean country. They fund their operations with extortion, kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling and contraband gasoline.