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Page last updated at 23:31 GMT, Sunday, 20 July 2008 00:31 UK

Colombia dares to dream of peace

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Bogota

Protesters hold a giant Colombian flag in Bogota, 20/07
Colombians staged one of the largest demonstrations in the country's history

Hundreds of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets to call for an end to kidnapping and a halt to the country's 44-year civil conflict.

The marches suggest that rebels are being defeated not just militarily, but politically as well.

"Today is our independence day, and we are against struggling for liberty," said lawyer Luis Alberto Gutierrez as he walked down Bogota's main street, the Seventh Avenue, heading down to the historic Plaza Bolivar.

Ingrid Betancourt addresses a peace rally in Paris

"First we got independence from the Spanish, now we want independence from those who oppress us with violence and kidnapping."

There have been protests before and calls for an end to the four-decade old conflict.

But many believe that things have now changed and Colombians are united in a way never before seen in their turbulent history.

"We are stronger now than ever before," said English teacher Marlen de Castillo.

"We have tasted freedom and working democracy and want more. And now the whole world is with us, is sharing our pain."

Ordinary people here have often felt slighted by the international community, which has condemned the nation as the source of most of the world's cocaine, slapping visa restrictions on any Colombian wanting to travel.

However, there has been a perceived shift following the successful rescue operation earlier this month that saw 15 hostages snatched from the hands of the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Way forward

Twelve Colombians and three US defence contractors were liberated in a bloodless operation, and President Alvaro Uribe, who now enjoys 85% approval ratings may be positioning himself to run for a third term in office.

It was the story of Ingrid Betancourt that triggered the world's interest and highlighted the plight of hundreds of Colombians held by the Marxist rebels in jungle and mountain prisons.

The cries from Colombians for freedom for the kidnap victims will most likely fall on deaf rebel ears

The French Colombian citizen, aged 46, was abducted in 2002 as she campaigned for the presidency. She became the international symbol of Colombian kidnapping.

Ms Betancourt was one of the political hostages held by the Farc. The rebels still hold 25 of these hostages, whom they want to exchange for hundreds of their comrades in prison.

But often forgotten or ignored by the international community are the hundreds of Colombians held for ransom by the guerrillas.

The Farc are estimated to have some 700 captives in their power, whilst the smaller the National Liberation Army (ELN) is believed to be holding 240 people for ransom.

Unlike the Farc, the ELN did not get involved in drugs trafficking for ideological reasons and relies on kidnapping and extortion to fund its 3,000-strong army.

The cries from Colombians for freedom for the kidnap victims will most likely fall on deaf rebel ears.

The Farc, knowing full well that these anti-kidnap protests were planned, snatched 10 people last week travelling on a boat along the Atrato River in the province of Choco, along the Pacific coast.

The ELN is dependent on kidnapping to keep its organisation alive.

The cry for liberty and peace needs negotiation and there is little prospect of Mr Uribe, flush with his military successes, making concessions, or of the Farc sitting down with their hated enemy.

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