World News

Colombian rebels still keen for talks on hostages

Freed former Colombian lawmaker Oscar Lizcano (R) smiles during a news conference at a hospital in Cali October 30, 2008. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC guerrillas are still open to talking about hostage releases or a prisoner swap after a captive lawmaker escaped with a rebel deserter in new blow to Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

The FARC has proposed a dialogue with a group of academics, politicians and former captives, fueling hopes of reviving stalled negotiations with President Alvaro Uribe over more than two dozen hostages held in jungle camps.

The most recent statement, published on Tuesday by the Anncol news agency on its website which often carries FARC communiques, came days after former congressman Oscar Lizcano managed to escape with one of his guards after eight years in captivity.

“A written dialogue will be maintained because we understand a political solution to the problems of war and peace is a fundamental concern for the immense majority of Colombians,” the rebels said in the statement dated Oct 30.

Any concrete talks would have to involve the government.

The FARC has previously said no exchange of prisoners would be possible under Uribe, but their statement indicated some flexibility. The guerrillas, who have little popular support, are holding around 28 politicians, police and soldiers they want to swap for jailed rebels.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is at its weakest in decades after Uribe used a multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package to send troops to retake areas once controlled by the guerrillas. Three commanders have died this year.

Rebels want the government to pull troops back from a rural area the size of New York City to create a safe haven for hostage talks. Uribe says that would allow rebels to regroup, but offers a smaller area under international observation.

Military agents pretending to be humanitarian workers in July tricked the FARC into handing over 15 hostages, including French-Colombian politician, Ingrid Betancourt, and three Americans who spent more than five years in rebel captivity.

Reporting by Patrick Markey, editing by Anthony Boadle