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FARC rebels to exchange letters on hostages

From Karl Penhaul
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Leftist rebels announced Tuesday they have agreed to exchange letters with a self-appointed group of Colombians, including some prominent public figures, to discuss the possible release of hostages the rebels are holding.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) posted the statement Tuesday on one of its Web sites. The statement, dated October 16 and datelined "Mountains of Colombia," was electronically signed by the group's General Secretariat, its seven-man leadership council.

The FARC was responding to a September 11 letter by a disparate group of Colombians, including relatives of hostages, center-left politicians, journalists and public personalities.

In that letter, the citizens asked the FARC to write letters -- a move it called an "exchange of epistles." The aim, the group said, would be to "allow us to identify the terms to set an agenda to clarify the route toward an understanding regarding a hostage exchange."

The government estimates the FARC is holding some 700 civilians and military personnel hostage. The FARC says it wants to exchange about 30 hostages for as many as 500 jailed guerrillas held in Colombian and U.S. prisons.

In its response, made public Tuesday, the FARC saluted "the flourishing of a current of opinion that differs from the false triumphalism and from the parameters of a warlike solution to the grand national problems."

However, the writers have no public mandate, and any peace overtures with the FARC must first be approved by the Colombian government.

President Alvaro Uribe's government says it is willing to talk about peace and a hostage swap with the rebels, but in six years it has failed to agree to any such meeting.

The writers of the letter from the FARC vow to "participate before the people in a dialogue with comprehensiveness and frankness, without dogmatism, without sectarianism and without disqualifying the themes that they suggest."

It says that FARC's recent unilateral liberation of six ex-members of Congress, organized by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Sen. Piedad Cordoba, had been an attempt "to create favorable conditions and atmosphere for the exchange of prisoners."

It adds, "The immense flag of peace with social justice should wave free, under the sky of Colombia. The eternal war against the people that they want to impose to perpetuate injustice cannot be the destiny of the country."

After a string of devastating blows against the FARC on the battlefield this year, Uribe seems to be banking on beating the FARC militarily rather than cutting any deals.

In July, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-value hostages were rescued by the Colombian military without a shot being fired.

And since March, three members of the rebel group's seven-member general secretariat have died or been killed. They include the founder and leader of the rebels, Pedro Antonio Marin, also known as Manuel Marulanda Velez; and Raul Reyes, a senior member of the leadership council.

The military strike that killed Reyes led to the discovery of a trove of intelligence from computers taken during a raid by Colombian military forces on a FARC camp inside Ecuador. That led Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa to break diplomatic ties with Colombia.

The computers included reported links between Chavez and the rebels.

Chavez has denied supporting the rebels and has changed his stance from calling for diplomatic recognition of them as legitimate combatants to calling for them to lay down their arms and end their military struggle.

The Colombian government has recently stepped up pressure on the rebels and has been offering rewards to the guerrillas if they surrender themselves and free their hostages. Although the government says the FARC's military force has been severely dented, authorities still accuse it of trafficking huge quantities of cocaine to finance its decades-old insurgency.

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