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Colombian rebels give hostage handover coordinates

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have issued coordinates for the release of two soldiers held in rebel camps deep in the jungles, a leftist senator involved in mediation efforts said on Thursday.

Pablo Emilio Moncayo, held hostage for a dozen years, and Josue Daniel Calvo are now closer to freedom after their handover became mired in wrangling between the rebels and President Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line government.

“We have in our possession the coordinates, that means the location for the people who are going to be handed over in a unilateral manner by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” said Senator Piedad Cordoba, who previously has brokered the release of hostages.

Cordoba did not say when they would be freed, but said there would be two handovers. Calvo, kidnapped last year and now ill, would be released first.

The FARC is holding 24 police officers and soldiers as leverage in its four-decade-old war against the state.

Once a powerful force that kidnapped and bombed at will, it has been driven back into remote mountains and jungles by Colombia’s U.S.-backed military campaign. Rebels are now deeply engaged in cocaine trafficking and have very little support among Colombians.

Uribe said his government has provided safeguards for the guerrillas to free the men to Cordoba, the Red Cross and observers from Brazil. The safeguards will only come into effect after a weekend vote, officials said.

Colombians go to the polls on Sunday for legislative elections and again in May for a presidential vote to decide who succeeds Uribe after two terms highlighted by his drive against rebels and cocaine traffickers.

Uribe accuses the rebels of trying to use the release to win a temporary halt in security operations before the election.

“We’ve always been ready to facilitate the release of our men,” Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said. “But we can’t allow our men and the release to be used so we stop protecting people during elections.”

Moncayo has become a symbol for those left behind in the jungles even as Colombia’s war ebbs. He was snatched in a 1997 attack on an army post.

Guerrilla commanders had promised to release the two soldiers more than a year ago.

Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Xavier Briand