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Colombian rebel: U.S., Colombia must exchange jailed rebels for 3 kidnapped Americans

Sunday, June 17, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Three kidnapped U.S. defense contractors and dozens of other hostages held by Colombian guerrillas must be swapped for all the guerrillas held in U.S. and Colombian jails, a senior rebel said on Saturday.

Rodrigo Granda, the so-called "foreign minister" of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the rebels will not consider piecemeal negotiations or prisoner swaps for the hostages, including the Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

"If the [Americans] want an agreement, then they must send back those rebels in prison in the U.S.," Granda said. "I understand the U.S. government did similar swaps in return for captured Americans during the Cold War, so I don't see why they can't do it in this case."

U.S. contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes were kidnapped in 2003 when their plane went down in southern Colombia as they were carrying out an intelligence gathering mission. The FARC call them prisoners of war and accuses them of spying for the CIA.

FARC rebels imprisoned in the United States include guerrilla commander Nayibe "Sonia" Rojas, convicted earlier this year in a U.S. court of exporting cocaine. Another commander, Ricardo Palmera -- better known by the nom de guerre Simon Trinidad -- is awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping the three contractors and drug trafficking.

The United States has so far ruled out releasing the two imprisoned guerrillas. While both private contractors and the U.S. military are helping search for the abducted Americans, the United States has limited its statements on the three to say that their welfare is the responsibility of the FARC.

Fighting a five-decade civil conflict, the 15,000-strong FARC are holding about 60 high-profile hostages. In addition to the rebels in U.S. jails, there are hundreds jailed in Colombia.

The 58-year-old Granda dismissed speculation that the FARC may agree to separate negotiations: one exchanging the U.S.-held guerrillas for the contractors, and another with the Colombian government to free the remaining hostages.

"At the moment, there's only one deal," he said, dragging on his cigarette at the church compound in Bogota where he's under heavy security.

Granda, who has spent near two decades in the FARC, was freed by Colombian authorities earlier this month and has been trying to drum up support abroad for a prisoner-hostage swap. He was abducted from Venezuela's capital, Caracas, in 2004 and brought back to Colombia in an incident that caused a diplomatic row between the two countries.

He revealed that while in prison, he refused to talk to a representative from the U.S. embassy who visited him, in an attempt he believes to gather information on the kidnapped Americans.

"To just turn up at my cell and not request a meeting was an affront," he said, his voice rising.

His release from prison came after a request to President Alvaro Uribe by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking the release of Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen.

In what he called a gesture of good faith to advance an agreement, Uribe also promised to free about 150 other prisoners that he identified as rebels.

There had been hopes that the FARC would view the move positively, and perhaps even respond by releasing some of their hostages.

Granda, however, said the FARC believe Uribe's actions were designed to weaken them, as the government insisted that all those who apply for early release leave the organization.

He added that among those prisoners scheduled for release are common criminals and innocent civilians falsely accused of belonging to the FARC.

Granda will travel to Cuba sometime this week where he will "rest" for between two and three weeks, before returning to Colombia.

Any deal on the hostages must include the demilitarization of an 800 square kilometer (310 square mile) zone in southwest Colombia for 45 days, said Granda. The zone would be occupied by rebels.

Uribe has rejected the proposal for a rebel safe haven.

Granda also explained why the FARC continue to kidnap, helping keep Colombia at the top of the world's abduction tables.

"War is expensive, the oligarchs have the money, and we need to raise money," he said.


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