Rebel release of hostages praised as promising step

Colombia’s leftist rebels have freed 10 hostages held in the jungle for more than a decade, in a move the country’s president hailed as a step in the right direction.

The four soldiers and six policemen were airlifted from their jungle prison Monday aboard a Brazilian air force helicopter bearing the Red Cross logo. The men, who had been held for 12 to 14 years, appeared to be in relatively good health as they greeted relatives in Villavicencio before being flown to Bogota.

The Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia had promised to free the captives in February. They also promised to stop carrying out ransom kidnappings for profit. The rebels said the 10 were the last police and military hostages it was holding.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said the prisoner release was a positive step for the country’s main rebel group, although insufficient to start peace talks toward ending Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

“This release, and above all, the promise of the FARC not to return to kidnapping, is a gesture that we appreciate. We appreciate it in all its dimensions. Without a doubt, it’s a step in the right direction, a very important step,” Santos said.

President Santos has said the government will not negotiate with the rebels until it stops kidnappings and releases all of its prisoners.

Some Colombian civilian groups believe the rebels are still holding as many as 700 hostages and they doubt the rebels are serious about talking peace.

The rebels have been active since 1964, saying it is fighting for the rights of the poor. It funds its operations mainly through drug trafficking and holding hostages for ransom.

Colombia, the European Union, and United States regard FARC as a terrorist group.

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