World News

Colombian rebels to free soldier held 11 years

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Leftist Colombian rebels will free a soldier held hostage for more than 11 years as they look for ways to start peace talks with the government, the guerrillas said in a statement on Thursday.

The move is the latest by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, aimed at jump-starting negotiations with conservative U.S.-backed President Alvaro Uribe.

But the two sides remain far apart on conditions for talking.

The 45-year-old FARC said it will free Pablo Moncayo, a soldier captured in late 1997. Moncayo’s father, Gustavo, has led a campaign for the release of kidnap victims, draping himself in chains and walking throughout Colombia to publicize the plight if victims.

The cocaine-financed guerrillas hold hundreds of hostages for ransom and political leverage.

“We announce our decision to unilaterally free Pablo Moncayo and personally turn him over” to his father and left-wing Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has brokered hostage handovers in the past.

The FARC says it wants to start talks with the government but Uribe insists that the rebels first must cease bombing, kidnapping and drug smuggling.

The rebels’ statement said both sides would have to agree to a cease-fire and that negotiations must begin with the acknowledgment that the state is at fault for Colombia’s decades-old guerrilla war.

“Bilateralism is the indispensable rule ... in order to build confidence and create a solid base for advancement,” the FARC statement said.

Uribe was first elected in 2002, promising to smash the insurgency. The president was highly critical of earlier, unsuccessful peace efforts with the rebels, who have been pushed onto the defensive by his hard-line policies.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Bill Trott