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Red Cross: Colombian rebels free last captives in peace gesture
VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (AP) ' Colombia's main rebel group freed on Monday what it says were its last 10 soldiers and police captives, the International Red Cross said.
The six police and four soldiers had all spent at least 12 years in jungle prisons after being captured in combat, and the release highlighted efforts to seek peace talks by Latin America's oldest and most potent guerrilla band.
Red Cross spokeswoman Maria Cristina River told reporters at the airport in Villavicencio in Colombia's eastern lowlands that the group was en route from a jungle rendezvous aboard a Brazilian air force helicopter loaned for the mission and emblazoned with the Red Cross logo.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, had announced Monday's liberation on Feb. 26 in tandem with a halt in ransom kidnappings as a revenue source.
President Juan Manuel Santos had no immediate comment on the releases.
He has said that before he would agree to a peace dialogue he wants proof the FARC, which took up arms in 1964, is truly abandoning ransom kidnapping as well as other indications it is sincere about ceasing hostilities.
Two serious goverment-FARC peace negotiations failed over the past three decades, and recent weeks have seen an upsurge in violence in the conflict.
The FARC killed at least 11 soldiers in a mid-March attack in Arauca near the Venezuelan border and the military responding with two precision bombings on rebel camps that killed more than 60 insurgents.
The rebels have in recent years suffered their worst battlefield setbacks ever, beginning when Santos was defense minister from 2006-2009 and thanks to billions in U.S. military assistance and training.
Their main source of funding is the cocaine trade and military pressure has made holding kidnap victims increasingly difficult for the FARC.
It is not known how many ransom kidnap victims the insurgency holds but authorities put the number at least six, including four Chinese oil workers seized last June.
The citizens' watchdog group Fundacion Pais Libre maintains a list of at least 400 people the FARC kidnapped or has otherwise held against their will since 1996 who were never freed. It doesn't expunge a name from its records until the person is released or a body is found.
Monday's mission was brokered by leftist former Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has served as a go-between in the release of 20 FARC hostages since January 2008.
Cordoba told reporters Monday that her work would be done with this week's releases as she has no desire to become involved in cases in which money rather than politics are involved.
She said, however, that the activists group she leads, Colombians for Peace, plans to send letters to the FARC asking it exactly how many civilians it holds.
The FARC has only publicly acknowledged holding captives it considered "exchangeable:" police, soldiers or politicians it held for political leverage, hoping to swap them for imprisoned rebels.
It held scores of such prisoners in the late 1990s when it controlled about half the countryside but gradually released them all, never obtaining the hoped-for exchange.
Some captives were rescued. Franco-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors in 2008 were freed in a bold ruse involving Colombian soldiers posing as members of a phony international humanitarian group.
But others, at least 25, died in captivity, many of them killed by FARC insurgents when rescuers real or imagined neared.
Among those in attendance for Monday's release was Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace prize.
She said it is now time for Colombia's government to respond to the FARC's gesture with its own display of political willingness to attain peace.
But analysts caution that peace talks, even back-channel negotiations, could be a long time coming.
Many don't believe they could happen before 2014 presidential elections.
Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.