BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC rebels freed 10 members of the armed forces held hostage in jungle prison camps for more than a decade on Monday, the last of a group the drug-funded group had used as bargaining chips to pressure the government.
The four soldiers and six policemen were released to a humanitarian mission led by the International Committee of the Red Cross in what the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia called a gesture of peace.
Wearing olive fatigues and seeming well fed and relatively healthy, the 10 men stepped off a helicopter provided by Brazil after the Marxist rebels freed them in a remote area of southern Colombia.
Smiling and joking with a medic, one soldier left the aircraft draped in the Colombian flag and skipping with joy. Each carried a plastic bag of belongings and one was accompanied by what appeared to be a small pig that had been his pet in the jungle. Another had what looked like a monkey on his shoulder.
“To these victims of the intolerance and cruelty of the guerrillas, soldiers and policemen of Colombia, welcome to freedom,” President Juan Manuel Santos said from the presidential palace. “Freedom has been long delayed, but now it’s yours.”
The release could signal that the FARC is taking tentative steps toward a bid for talks that may end Latin America’s oldest insurgency after five decades of killing and destroying economic infrastructure.
But many Colombians remain skeptical that the guerrilla group, which is still believed to be holding as many as 700 civilian hostages for ransom, will lay down its weapons after having used previous peace talks to strengthen their forces.
Santos, who is under pressure to end the conflict, has demanded the FARC free all its prisoners and cease attacks on civilian and military targets before any talks can take place.
“As soon as the government considers there are sufficient conditions to initiate a process that would end the conflict, the country will know,” Santos said, in an apparent response to rumors of secret peace talks.
“In the meantime, everything else that has been said about this is no more than speculation.”
The 10 men were seized at the end of the 1990s when the FARC was at its strongest. They formed part of a group known as “canjeables,” or exchangeables, used to pressure the government for political concessions rather than for ransom payments.
Their release followed a series of messages from the FARC’s leadership, including a promise in February to stop kidnapping for ransom, that hints at a desire for peace.
“This is a gesture that shouldn’t be underestimated,” said local conflict analyst Juan Carlos Palou.
“The promise that they will no longer kidnap for ransom implies to me that the government really should take it as a sign that the FARC really is interested in talks and move ahead with a process to end the conflict,” he said.
Some analysts have called the FARC’s promise to halt kidnappings for ransom a ploy to garner international support and shed their image as terrorists, while raising funds for war through other means such as extortion.
The FARC, which has kidnapped thousands of civilians over the decades to help pay for weapons, food and uniforms, is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. It is suspected of being behind about a third of all kidnappings in Colombia.
“There are still hundreds of hostages that the FARC should free if they really want Colombian society to believe their announcement that they will not continue kidnapping,” Olga Gomez, director non-profit group Free Country, told reporters.
For decades, the FARC has seized business leaders, oil workers and cattle ranchers as they drove on remote highways, or dragged them from their beds, sometimes posing as police.
Chained in mountain hideouts and urban slums, some captives languish for months or years while families try to muster ransoms running into the thousands, or occasionally millions, of dollars. Some are killed if negotiations fail.
“It makes me so happy. I hope they’ll be celebrating with their families tonight,” said Jhonny Castiblanco, 24, a waiter watching the release on television in an empty restaurant in the capital. In the 93rd Street Park of well-heeled northern Bogota, the unfolding events were displayed a large screen.
Unlike high-profile captives such as French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt - whose kidnapping prompted global condemnation, prayers by the Pope and direct involvement by French President Nicolas Sarkozy - most FARC victims have received little attention.
Last year, three Chinese oil workers and 23 oil industry contractors were seized in incidents blamed on the rebels. The Chinese workers are still in captivity, but troops freed the contractors.
The logistics of feeding and moving hostages has become more difficult for the FARC as an increasingly effective U.S.-backed military offensive has killed its leaders and driven the guerrillas back into ever more remote regions.
As a result, the police say, cases of kidnapping for ransom have fallen 90 percent since 2000 to 208 incidents last year, while the number of extortion cases surged 33 percent in 2011 from the previous year.
Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Nelson Bocanegra. Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Wilson