BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia's badly battered FARC rebels delivered three police officers and a soldier to the International Red Cross on Sunday in a mission marred by accusations of military interference.
A Brazilian military helicopter, emblazoned with the Red Cross insignia, retrieved the four hostages from a guerrilla stronghold in Colombia's southern jungles and flew them to a provincial airport where they were met by relatives and peace activists with hugs and white daisies.
A reporter accompanying the release, Jorge Enrique Botero, said it was hounded and delayed by more than two hours of military overflights that he called "notorious, abundant and repetitive."
"This of course caused enormous nervousness, not just among us but also among the people of the FARC," he said at the Villavicencio airport in Colombia's eastern plains, adding that he would provide audio and video evidence.
The government's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, called the allegations "baseless." He said authorities honored an agreement with the Red Cross for no military flights beneath 20,000 feet during the liberation.
Captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2007, the four security-force members freed Sunday are among six hostages the FARC pledged to liberate unconditionally this week. The other two, the only Colombian politicians believed still in rebel hands, have been held far longer.
Analysts consider the releases — the guerrillas' first in nearly a year — a goodwill gesture. However, chances for a peace dialogue with Colombia's government remain far off. Sunday's alleged military interference was only apt to complicate matters.
A guerrilla commander who identified himself as Jairo Martinez, speaking to the Venezuelan television network Telesur, accused the military of killing a rebel in his unit in combat on Sunday morning.
The government peace commissioner, Restrepo, did not directly deny the allegation, but said, "We are accustomed to the lies of the FARC."
The Western Hemisphere's last rebel army announced this week's releases on Dec. 21 in response to a plea from Colombian intellectuals.
President Alvaro Uribe, however, has resisted FARC attempts to negotiate a prisoner swap, and last month accused the rebels of "deceiving the country with talk of peace."
He has frequently been at odds with the opposition lawmaker who helped engineer this week's releases, Sen. Piedad Cordoba. She is a close ally of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
Colombia's U.S.-backed military has seriously weakened the rebels in the past two years, killing top commanders, compelling hundreds of desertions with hefty rewards and forcing the rebels into virtual radio silence with sophisticated surveillance.
FARC commander Alfonso Cano, meanwhile, has refused to renounce kidnapping, a key political and fundraising tool for the rebels. The guerrillas' main revenue source is the cocaine trade.
It is not known how many hostages are held by the FARC, which has sought the overthrow of successive Colombian governments for 45 years, though the government says they currently include just one foreigner, a Swede named Roland Larsson kidnapped in May 2007.
The man's son, Tommy Larsson, told The Associated Press in Sweden that he recently received a proof-of-life video but no ransom demand: "A doctor saw the video and it appears that he had suffered from a stroke. His right arm, leg and parts of his face are paralyzed."
At least 22 soldiers and police continue to be held by the FARC as bargaining chips. They include a police general seized more than a decade ago and Cpl. Pablo Moncayo, 28, who was captured in December 1997.
Moncayo's anguished father, Gustavo, told the AP on Sunday that he didn't understand why the FARC was releasing security-force members held for a comparatively short time.
"I don't know. It's something they're doing that's beyond logic and reason," he said.
The releases were greeted with hope, but also considerable skepticism.
"This is movement. It's a step forward. But it's not enough. All the hostages need to be released," Democratic Rep. James McGovern, of Massachusetts, told the AP.
A critic of Uribe's human rights record who has been active in efforts to spur peace talks with the FARC, McGovern said he also is frustrated by the rebels' intransigence.
On Monday, the rebels are to hand over former provincial Gov. Alan Jara, 51, who was kidnapped in July 2001. Former provincial lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez, 45, is to be released on Wednesday. He was grabbed in April 2002 during a daring rebel raid on a state assembly in western Colombia.
The FARC's last previous unilateral release was of six politicians handed over to Venezuelan representatives in January and February of 2008.
The rebels subsequently lost three members of their ruling junta: one in a cross-border raid into Ecuador, another by a bodyguard's hand and the third, founding leader Manuel Marulanda, of an apparent heart attack.
In a bloodless ruse on July 2, Colombian military agents posing as members of an international humanitarian mission rescued 15 hostages, including Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.