Contact with the FARC‘s new commander, Alfonso Cano, could be an initial step toward negotiations over the hostages as Latin America’s oldest rebel insurgency comes under increasing pressure from military attacks and growing desertions.A French and a Swiss negotiator have spent three days in the area where top commanders are believed to operate as part of efforts to free kidnap victims, who include French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, the source said.“The government has given all the guarantees for this mission,” the government source said, asking he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “We know that this is advancing.”The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, is holding 40 high-profile hostages it wants to exchange for jailed rebels. It has demanded that President Alvaro Uribe pull troops back from an area the size of New York City to facilitate talks.Uribe, popular at home for his tough stance against the rebels, refuses to accept that condition. But he has offered a smaller safe haven under international observation in an area where there are no armed forces or armed groups.Once a 17,000-member insurgency able to attack cities and kidnap almost at will, the FARC has been driven back into remote areas and now has about 9,000 combatants. The guerrillas have lost three major leaders this year. Cano, a former university activist, is seen as more flexible on negotiations with the government than the group’s founder and top commander, Manuel Marulanda, who died in March. But experts say he may lack the authority to keep the FARC united.Uribe has said the government has received contacts from one rebel who wants to surrender and hand over hostages, including Betancourt. But he has provided few details.Betancourt, a former presidential candidate with dual nationality, was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002. She was last seen in a rebel video at the end of last year looking gaunt and despondent in a jungle camp.The three U.S. Defense Department contract workers were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungles while on a counternarcotics operation.Listed as a terrorist group by U.S. and European officials, the FARC has used Colombia’s cocaine trade to fund its operations. The four-decade conflict has been reduced in many regions to battles over drug-producing land involving the FARC, outlawed paramilitaries and other drug smuggling gangs. (Reuters)
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