January 27, 2008 / 2:28 AM / 11 years ago

Colombia orders blockade of rebel hostage camps

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Colombia ordered troops to surround jungle camps where rebels hold hundreds of kidnap victims in hopes of forcing their release despite concerns the move could endanger the lives of the hostages.

Once the army finds the makeshift jails and seals their perimeters, an international commission will be asked to press the leftist guerrillas to negotiate the release of the abductees, President Alvaro Uribe said on Saturday

Critics of the plan said Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, known as the FARC, may execute hostages such as French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans should soldiers get too close to their secret camps.

"This implies a great risk," said Carlos Gaviria, leader of the opposition Polo Democratico party.

Uribe, under pressure to clinch a hostage deal, is deadlocked with the rebels over conditions for starting talks.

"The order is to locate the places where the hostages are held, surround them, and when they are surrounded call in the international community to establish a humanitarian process to free all the hostages," Uribe said at a public appearance.

Betancourt was taken during her 2002 presidential campaign. U.S. defense contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were captured during an anti-drug mission in 2003.

Cocaine funds many of the groups fighting in Colombia’s four-decade-old guerrilla war. The United States has provided about $5.5 billion in aid to the Andean country over the last seven years to fight the drug trade and defeat the rebels.

Last year 11 kidnapped Colombian lawmakers were killed when the FARC said their camp was attacked by an unidentified military force. Other hostages have been executed by the rebels as government troops closed in on their positions.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping in the 1980s, has offered to designate a remote and unpopulated rural area to negotiate a swap of hostages for jailed rebels.

The FARC says it wants a larger area cleared of soldiers to set the stage for an exchange. Uribe refuses, saying that to grant such a safe haven would allow the guerrillas to regroup.

The rebels turned over two kidnapped politicians to Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez earlier this month. Chavez says he will keep trying to negotiate hostage deals despite having been told to stay out of the talks by Uribe. (Editing by Eric Walsh)

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