Feb 12 (Reuters) - Colombia’s main guerrilla group has held three American contract workers captive for five years this week and their families in the United States hope recent hostage releases could bring the men closer to freedom.
Here are some key facts about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the dozens of politicians, soldiers and police they hold hostage.
* The FARC began as a Communist peasant army in the 1960s. President Alvaro Uribe has pushed the guerrillas onto the defensive with a U.S.-backed security campaign, but the group is still fighting, kidnapping and trafficking in cocaine.
* The three U.S. Defense Department contract workers — Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell — were kidnapped when their aircraft crashed while on a counter-narcotics mission in February 2003.
* Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was running for president, and her vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas, were captured while campaigning in 2002. Rojas gave birth to a boy, Emmanuel, while in captivity in a secret jungle camp.
* Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, a lawmaker, were freed in January after six years in captivity. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez brokered their release, but his calls for the FARC to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations have fueled diplomatic tensions with Colombia.
* Betancourt and the three Americans are among 44 key hostages the FARC wants exchanged for jailed rebels. Some have been held for nearly a decade. The government says the FARC holds another 700 hostages.
* Late last year, the army arrested a group of guerrillas as they delivered documents including a video that showed a gaunt Betancourt sitting in the jungle and the three Americans. In a letter to her mother, the politician said she was barely eating and that her hair was falling out.
* The FARC wants Uribe to pull troops back from a New York City-sized rural area for a safe haven to negotiate a hostage swap. Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping, says that would allow the rebels to regroup.
* French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year persuaded Uribe to release a top jailed rebel in an effort to break the deadlock. France, Switzerland and Spain are now engaged in efforts to secure a possible hostage deal. (Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Eric Walsh)