Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Colombia to release top guerrilla leader to broker peace deal

The country’s largest rebel group had rejected a proposal to exchange prisoners.

The Colombian government announced on Monday that will release a top guerrilla leader in an attempt to revive a plan to exchange prisoners rejected by rebel groups. Officials confirmed that Rodrigo Granda, a prominent guerrilla militant, will leave jail temporarily to try to set up peace talks and arrange the release of rebel hostages.

The move comes a day after the FARC, the Colombian largest rebel group, dismissed a as a farce a bid by President Alvaro Uribe to release about 200 jailed militants in hopes of perusading their commanders to free hostages held for years, including the French-Colombian politican Ingrid Betancourt.

In a statement carried by a Web site sympathetic to the rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said that the 200 prisoners the government plans to free in the next week were «deserters» who had «betrayed the FARC» or were innocent civilians falsely accused of being rebels.

According to reports, the deal was fueled by the new French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, after holding talks with Betancourt relatives in Paris. The response from the FARC reiterated the guerrillas' long-standing demand for a demilitarized zone as a condition for any talks on liberating hostages held in secret jungle camps in Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

Deputy Justice Minister Guillermo Reyes told reporters in Colombia that Mr. Granda “will leave to act as a representative in charge of negotiation efforts. The idea is create space to negotiate, to reach agreements, to converse with the FARC leadership over a peace process."

In what analysts consider a strong political gesture to restore talks and create conditions for a cease-fire pact, President Uribe has reaffirmed his plans to promote an exchange of prisoners.

Among the hostages hold by the FARC, are also three US contractors -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell – who were captured when their aircraft went down in the jungles while on a drug eradication mission. The FARC says that the three are member of US security forces.

Colombia was flooded last weekend with rumors about an imminent release of hostages, including Betancourt. Earlier expectations went down on Sunday after the FARC negative.

Hernan Etchaleco