Colombia Releases Rebels in Hopes of Hostage Deal

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has released 200 jailed Marxist rebels. He hopes that in return the group they belong to will free civilian hostages. Among the 60 captives are three American defense contractors and celebrated French-Colombian author Ingrid Betancourt.

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Marxist rebels in Colombia are holding hostages, including three American defense contractors and a French-Colombian author and politician whose plight has been a cause celeb in France since her kidnapping five years ago.

Now President Alvaro Uribe has embarked on a risky strategy. He's unconditionally releasing jailed rebels in the hope that the country's largest rebel group will free its hostages.

NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO: Juan Carlos Lecompte's apartment is full of memories of his wife, Ingrid Betancourt. She's a former Colombian senator and corruption fighter held by guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC.

In his duplex apartment overlooking this vast city, there are photographs and paintings of her. And there is her book, "The Rage in My Heart," about her fight against corruption, a book that was a bestseller in France and translated into many languages.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS LECOMPTE (Husband of Ingrid Betancourt): This translation in Japanese, Ingrid doesn't know this book in Japanese, so it's simple and this - you have to open it the other way. That the book sold 400,000 copies in France. This one is in Italian, this one is in Portuguese...

FORERO: Lecompte is also reminded of his wife when he plays their favorite song, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Mr. LECOMPTE: Ingrid like that song very much and kids like it very much too.

FORERO: This week, Colombia's government has begun the release of rebels. Nearly 200 are being freed. One of them is Rodrigo Granda(ph), a top guerilla leader. France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, asked Uribe to release Granda as a gesture to the rebels.

He's most interested in seeing Betancourt freed. But the FARC holds nearly 60 high-level captives, many of them Colombian politicians. The captives also include the three Americans held since their plane crashed in rebel territory in 2003. Francisco Santos is Colombia's vice president. He says liberating Granda could spur the FARC into talks.

Vice President FRANCISCO SANTOS (Colombia): We have an understanding that he might start doing gestures and start working to see if he can open a door for dialogues regarding the freedom of the hostages.

FORERO: The FARC has criticized the government. Granda, in a statement, said he awaits word from the rebel high command as to whether he can serve as a facilitator.

Opposition leader Carlos Gavidia says the government is trying to divert attention from a widening scandal linking Uribe's congressional allies with the traditional enemies of the guerillas, right-wing death squad. He also says he doesn't believe the FARC will reciprocate by releasing hostages.

Mr. CARLOS GAVIDIA (Opposition Leader, Colombia): (Through translator) I hope I'm wrong, but there's no reason to await good results from this gesture.

FORERO: Lecompte is also not hopeful; mainly because Uribe rejects the FARC's proposal for creating a safe haven for talks in Southern Colombia.

Mr. LECOMPTE: The guerillas is going to release the hostage after a negotiation, after the guerillas sit in a table with the government and they disclose the humanitarian agreement, and then the hostage can be free.

FORERO: Lecompte says he's tried getting used to being alone.

Mr. LECOMPTE: Now I know how loneliness is. I'm losing even my friends because I remember the first two years, all my friends were around me, I mean invite me to go to dinner, I'm going to pick you up. They call me every single day. But still the three or four years, I mean, the friends just disappeared.

FORERO: So Lecompte has just his memories.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

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