Outraged by the killing of four captives by FARC rebels, tens of thousands of Colombians protested on Tuesday to demand an end to half a century of guerrilla violence and kidnapping.
In an apparent response, the guerrillas unexpectedly promised to free six of the 11 members of the armed forces still held in prison camps deep in the jungle.
“We’ll continue exploring with you all the ways that may lead to this noble undertaking and to carry out … the release of the war prisoners,” the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, said in a statement without giving details of timing or names.
The group also holds as many as 300 civilians.
Earlier, as helicopters hovered over Bogota and car horns sounded, Colombians dressed in white marched toward the capital’s main square, holding images of the recently murdered hostages and chanting “No more war! Yes to life, yes to peace”.
The four victims — all members of the armed forces — were shot by FARC as troops attacked the rebels’ hideout last month. Their bodies were found alongside chains used to tie their necks to trees.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who backed the march, is facing increased pressure from Colombians to seek an end to the conflict that has killed tens of thousands over the decades.
“We have tolerated the FARC enough,” said Ruben Castano, an engineer, who took the day off work to participate.
“Santos, it’s time to end this.”
Santos is responsible for some of the harshest blows against the FARC, including killing the group’s leader Alfonso Cano last month. He has expressed willingness to hold peace talks if the Marxist rebels stop kidnapping, lay down their weapons and cease attacks on civilians and the military.
While the FARC has refused, Cano had hinted before his death that dialogue was the only way forward.
“It’s not just the government calling for peace, it’s all of Colombia,” Santos said at the start of the demonstration.
US-backed strikes against the FARC for more than a decade have severely weakened the rebels and limited their ability to launch attacks on the country’s economic infrastructure, attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment.
But the group remains a formidable part of the conflict, which strips as much as 1% from the economy each year.
The FARC was once considered almost invincible. None of its seven-member secretariat was killed or captured in more than four decades but five have been killed since 2008.
“I am calling on the FARC to give us back our loved ones,” said protester Esperanza Rojas, whose husband, a military sergeant, went missing 19 years ago.
“We want a peace process.”
Armed with modern weapons and financed by drug funds and extortion, the 8 000-strong group has battled a dozen administrations since its formation in 1964.
It was created by Manuel Marulanda, a highway inspector, who fled into the mountains with a handful of peasant supporters to fight a bloody civil war known as La Violencia.
At its strongest, the FARC’s 20 000 fighters controlled much of rural Colombia, promising social justice while it attacked towns, controlled the production of coca — used to make cocaine — and threatened local government officials.
Santos is seeking a constitutional change that may smooth the way for the FARC’s secretariat to face shorter sentences if peace is reached and they confess their crimes and compensate their victims. The last peace effort ended in shambles. — Reuters