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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 January 2008, 04:07 GMT
Little optimism after hostage releases
By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Freed hostage Clara Rojas
Joy for freed hostage Clara Rojas, but future prospects are less rosy
Colombians are celebrating the release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez and are delighted that the little boy Emmanuel Rojas, found in a foster home, will be reunited with his mother Clara.

However nobody is optimistic that the remaining 40-odd political hostages in rebel hands will be coming home at any time soon.

"Look, it took six years for the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to release these women and then only in a cynical attempt to win international support and pressure the president," said Fabio Ramirez, 40, a company executive in Medellin.

"Now they will want some of their killers in prison freed."

The dynamics for the prisoner exchange have not really changed.

The Farc are still demanding that two municipalities in the south western province of Cauca be demilitarized for negotiations to begin on the release of the remaining hostages.

This is a concession Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has already ruled out in the strongest terms.

International interests

However with this release Mr Uribe will be under massive pressure, not just from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had his role as mediator cancelled by his Colombian counterpart in November last year, but from President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, who has made the release of hostage Ingrid Betancourt - who has French nationality through a former marriage - a foreign policy priority.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with freed hostage Consuelo Gonzalez (left)
President Chavez's role has been minimised by the Colombian authorities

Also in the background is Washington, keen to see the return of three of its intelligence operatives in Farc hands, after a spy plane crash-landed in the rebel-dominated province of Caqueta, literally into lap of a guerrilla patrol in 2002.

"With this liberation the Farc have once more put the issue of the prisoner exchange onto the national and international agenda," said Roman Ortiz, analyst with the Bogota think-tank Foundation Ideas for Peace, "and the pressure mounts on President Uribe to deliver the safe haven the guerrillas want."

President Chavez is most unlikely to be reappointed as a mediator, despite his success with Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez and his obvious influence over the rebels.

The reason he was dismissed last year was because he was seen hugging Farc commanders and not informing Bogota of what he was doing with the guerrillas.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
President Uribe won't contemplate prison releases

His new call for Europe to remove the Farc, and the smaller rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), from the terrorist list has also created a rift with President Uribe that may be hidden but will never be healed.

"These are not terrorist groups, they are real armies, real armies that occupy territory in Colombia, that occupy a position," said President Chavez in an address to the Venezuelan National Assembly.

"One must give recognition to the Farc and the ELN, they are insurgent forces that have a political project, that have a Bolivarian project that is respected here."

Prison experience

With these declarations Mr Chavez has essentially given the Farc and their struggle to overthrow the government legitimacy, recognising them as a belligerent and political force.

This could not be more at odds with the tone of his Colombian counterpart, who describes the guerrillas at every opportunity possible as "terrorists" or "narcoterrorists".

Colombian soldier Pablo Emilio Moncayo
Hostages like soldier Pablo Moncayo can have little hope of an early release from the Farc
The truth is that Mr Uribe has historically been against any prisoner exchange, believing it will simply encourage the Farc to continue kidnapping and undermine the morale of the security forces which work to capture guerrillas.

He has also said that he will never release anyone from prison so they can simply return to the jungle and rebel ranks.

And this would be exactly what the Farc want, as they need to replace commanders that have been killed in battle and among the hundreds of rebels in prison is a wealth of experience and leadership that the movement desperately needs.

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