BOGOTA, Colombia – Under international pressure, President Alvaro Uribe agreed Friday to what would be the first face-to-face meeting between officials of his government and leftist rebels. The goal: an exchange of rebel prisoners for dozens of high-profile hostages, including three Americans and a former presidential candidate.
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Both sides should come unarmed to an unidentified 95-square-mile zone, far from military and police posts and population centers, where they can be monitored by international and Roman Catholic observers.
Uribe's proposal comes amid mounting pressure, especially from France, to swap 46 high-profile rebel-held hostages for hundreds of jailed rebels. Uribe offered no more details, but Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the talks would last no more than 30 days.
"Compatriots, we have done and will continue to do everything within our hearts to free our hostages," said Uribe.
The proposal moves closer to a long-standing demand by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for a temporary New York City-sized safe haven in the southern Colombian municipalities of La Florida and Pradera for talks on a prisoner swap.
But both sides still are far from coming to terms. The rebels have insisted that their negotiators not disarm for any such talks. And Uribe has long resisted extending an olive branch to the FARC, which killed his rancher father two decades ago. In the same speech, he likened the rebels' treatment of its hostages to Nazi abuses in World War II concentration camps.
Even while proposing hostage talks, Uribe offered up to $100 million in rewards to FARC members who desert the half-century old insurgency and bring a hostage along with them. He also noted that the rebels are holding more than 750 hostages in all.
Since Uribe took office in 2002, U.S.-trained commandos have pushed the rebels deeper into the jungle and no government official has met face-to-face with the FARC.
The president's speech upstaged the revelation by a former government minister Friday that Uribe's administration inexplicably abandoned a similar proposal in 2006, a month after beginning his second term.
Alvaro Leyva, who has long served as a go-between for the government and the rebels, said Uribe's peace commissioner called him the morning of Sept. 8, 2006, and asked him to cancel his announcement that day of a demilitarized zone in La Florida and Pradera to facilitate a possible prisoner swap.
"The truth is that someone cut it off," Leyva said. He did no specify whom.
Uribe's proposal comes a week after his government released proof-of-life videos of the most prominent hostages that it seized from alleged rebels it captured, and two weeks after he canceled a mediation effort by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
On Thursday, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France directly appealed to the FARC's top leader to free Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French citizen seized as she ran for president in 2002. French, Swiss and Spanish envoys have been meeting privately with the FARC as well.
"It's what we've been waiting for a long time," Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, said of Uribe's gesture.
There were doubts, however, about the sincerity of Uribe's peacemaking gesture, and about whether the rebels would respond affirmatively.
Jo Rosano, mother of American hostage Marc Gonsalves, said "the president can offer all these things, but will the FARC respond?"
The three U.S. hostages have been held since their surveillance plane went down in rebel territory in February 2003.