BOGOTA (Reuters) - Leftist Colombian rebels have dragged out efforts at recovering the bodies of 11 hostages killed in June and may be using the safe haven established for the search to regroup and plan attacks, the government said on Friday.
Hardening its stance against guerrillas still holding kidnap victims including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, the government said it will resume on Sunday military operations halted at the start of the week to allow searchers to recover the remains.
The International Committee of the Red Cross started probing the jungles of western Colombia for the bodies on Monday based on coordinates provided by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which had held the 11 provincial lawmakers captive for more than five years.
“Military operations in the zone are paralyzed. I worry that these FARC bandits are setting a new trap by postponing the turn-over of the corpses, simply to give themselves time to plan new terrorist attacks,” President Alvaro Uribe said.
Since the deaths in June, Uribe has demanded that the bodies be handed over. The remains of five unidentified people were recovered on Thursday and Friday in an area pinpointed by the FARC.
“We believe there are more bodies buried in that same area and we are doing everything possible to recover them,” Red Cross spokesman Yves Heller said.
The FARC seized the 11 lawmakers in 2002 by pretending to be soldiers and escorting them out of their provincial capital building in the city of Cali and onto a bus, saying there was a bomb scare.
Finding the bodies would help authorities end a bitter debate over the deaths by determining if the victims were killed by cross-fire during a failed rescue attempt, as the FARC claims, or executed, as Uribe charges.
It could also set the stage for a Venezuela-brokered swap of other rebel prisoners such as three American defense contractors captured in 2003 and Betancourt, who was taken during her 2002 presidential campaign.
Last week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would meet with the rebel group in his country to negotiate a swap of hostages for guerrillas held in government prisons.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping in the 1980s, has refused rebel demands that he pull troops from a rural area to be used for hostage exchange talks.
Thousands are killed, kidnapped and displaced every year in Colombia’s four-decade-old guerrilla war.