June 28, 2007 10:47 pm

Colombian lawmakers killed in ambush

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Eleven Colombian deputies held hostage by the country’s largest guerrilla group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), were killed during a military ambush on a jungle camp, according to a statement released by the rebels on a news website on Thursday.

Farc claims that 11 of the 12 local deputies died last Monday, “during cross fire after a military group, which has not yet been identified, attacked a camp where they were being held.”

The head of Colombia’s armed forces, General Freddy Padilla, said in a statement that no military rescue operations had been ordered to free the hostages.

The deputies were kidnapped in broad daylight by Farc five years ago, after rebels raided a local government building where the lawmakers were holding a meeting in the province of Valle del Cauca.

The 11 deputies were among 56 so-called political hostages being held by Farc, including three U.S. contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, an ex-presidential candidate with French-Colombian citizenship who was kidnapped by the rebels five years ago during a presidential campaign tour.

This latest incident is likely to dash any hopes of a humanitarian prisoner swap between hostages held by Farc and imprisoned guerrilla members.

Last month, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president, ordered the release of 150 guerrillas in state jails as a good will gesture that he hoped would kick-start a prisoner exchange with the rebels.

However, Farc has repeatedly insisted that the government must first establish a demilitarized zone in two southwestern Colombian municipalities for any possible prisoner exchange to take place, a request that has been rejected by Mr Uribe.

Families of the murdered hostages have urged the government to set up a demilitarized zone for 45 days, a proposal backed by the Swiss and French governments.

”I immediately demand that the president [Mr Uribe] demilitarizes these areas to avoid more deaths, “ said Angela Giraldo, the sister of Francisco Javier Giraldo, who was one of the hostages allegedly killed.

So far, the families of hostages have received no confirmation from the government as to whether the Farc reports are credible.

Meanwhile, progress in preliminary peace talks being held in Havana between representatives of the Colombian government and the country’s second largest guerrilla group, The National Liberation Army (ELN), suggests that a possible ceasefire could lead to the release of hundreds of hostages being held by the rebel group.

“When the ELN signs this ceasefire agreement, it commits itself to free those hostages being held at the moment,” said ELN spokesmen, Pablo Beltrán, earlier this week.

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