February 2, 2009 / 12:41 AM / 10 years ago

Colombia hostage mission delayed, but back on track

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A mission to airlift two kidnapped politicians held hostage by Marxist guerrillas deep in Colombia’s jungle was delayed on Monday, but a left-wing senator said it would still go ahead later this week.

Colombian police officers (L-R) Juan Fernado Galicia, Alexis Torres Zapata and Walter Lozano are seen in television frame grabs of undated file photos. Galicia, Torres and Lozano, who were taken hostage by FARC rebels in June 2007, are part of a group of captives the FARC plan to release to a Red Cross mission on February 1, 2009. REUTERS/Colombian Police/Handout

Leftist FARC guerrillas freed four hostages on Sunday in the first of three prisoner releases planned this week, but their complaints of military harassment during the handover cast doubt on the mission to lift out the politicians.

The charges sparked a dispute between the government and a civilian commission helping to broker the handovers, further complicating the operation. But the row appeared to be resolved on Monday.

“Tomorrow we will continue with our task,” said Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who leads the commission and has helped negotiate hostage releases in the past.

She said a flight would now go into Colombia’s southern jungle on Tuesday to pick up former local governor Alan Jara, who was kidnapped more than seven years ago as he traveled back from the opening of a new bridge in the central province of Meta.

Another former lawmaker being held in the jungle near the Pacific coast should be released on Thursday, Cordoba said.

It is the first time FARC leaders have agreed to free captives since early last year, and the handovers have prompted speculation the weakened rebels will free more captives in an effort to win back lost political capital.

Nelly Tobon (L), mother of former Colombian lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez, and Patricia Nieto (C), his wife, attend a Catholic mass before his release by FARC guerrillas in Cali February 1, 2009. Lopez was kidnapped by FARC on 11 April 2002, and is the only surviver of the 12 politicians who were kidnapped. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was once a powerful army of 17,000 that held large swaths of Colombia, but it has been driven back into remote mountains and jungles since President Alvaro Uribe sent troops to retake control and crush the four-decade-old insurgency.

The FARC was battered last year by the deaths of three commanders, desertions and the rescue in July of a group of high-profile captives it hoped to use as bargaining chips, including three Americans and French-Colombian lawmaker Ingrid Betancourt.

The release of the two politicians this week looked in doubt when Uribe suspended Cordoba’s involvement after members of her commission said that Sunday’s release had been delayed by military operations.

However, the government then said it would let Cordoba take part in the mission as originally planned.

A car bomb late on Sunday outside a police office in the city of Cali further complicated the planned releases. Authorities blamed the FARC for the bombing, which killed at least two people and wounded 39.

Some analysts are skeptical about the FARC releases, saying it is just an effort to win back lost political credibility.

Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Kieran Murray

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