Colombia

Colombia: Rebels reject government panel seeking prisoner exchange

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Bogota (dpa) - Marxist rebels on Tuesday rejected working with a government commission created to try to find a way to exchange scores of kidnapping victims for guerrilla prisoners of war.

In a statement posted on the Internet, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) blasted the committee and said it would only discuss the issue if President Alvaro Uribe agreed to set up a territory free of military troops for talks.

Appointing the exploratory commission was a smokescreen "with the intention of distracting the attention of people interested in signing an agreement'', FARC said.

"Without a cleared-out zone, it is impossible to achieve the meeting of the two government and FARC commissions,'' the statement added. Without such a neutral site for talks, rebel delegates would be exposed to "being arrested or killed at the hands of public forces'', it said.

The rebels, who have been waging civil war against the government in Colombia for 39 years, demanded the release of every single FARC combatant being held by the government.

In exchange, they said they were willing "to let free all the military in their power, 12 deputies from Valle del Cauca, two former state ministers, the governor of Antioquia, the former governor of Meta and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt''.

Rebels said they wanted to continue to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict but added that should the government insist in trying to "recover its prisoners through the force of arms'', the responsibility for any physical harm to the FARC hostages lay on "the president and his security forces''.

Uribe, like his predecessor Andres Pastrana, had refused to consider exchanging prisoners for hostages but changed his mind under strong pressure from their families and the United Nations.

Also Tuesday, Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio refused to attribute a deadly bombing Friday at a social club in Bogota to FARC.

"We would at this time wish to have completed a firmer investigation before making such a statement,'' Osorio said, although he said "subversives'' were usually linked to such acts.

Some government officials blamed FARC for the attack on the exclusive El Nogal social club, which killed 35 people and wounded 165.

He added that employees at El Nogal were being investigated to see if they had participated in the attack, in which a vehicle packed with 150 kilogrammes of explosives was detonated in a parking lot inside the 11-storey building. dpa am ls

AP-NY-02-11-03 1455EST

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 02/11/2003 14:56:08

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