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Colombia seeks FARC prisoner swap

Story Highlights

• Uribe: Government's FARC prisoners have been transferred to holding facilities
• FARC leaders denounced the government's offer, sets conditions
• FARC says number of released FARC members include "deserters" and civilians
• FARC hostages include Colombian senator
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BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Colombia has begun releasing prisoners from its largest Marxist rebel group, beginning with its "foreign minister," Rodrigo Granda, in hopes of getting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to reciprocate, authorities said Wednesday.

But the rebels are refusing to free its dozens of hostages, including Colombian Senator Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors, until government troops withdraw from two southern towns.

Granda identified the towns as Pradera and Florida in the southern province of Valle del Cauca.

"With that, it may generate a dynamic that not only will permit the return of the FARC's hostages to their relatives, but also increase confidence between the two sides and set the basis for possible talks which could lead to a negotiated political agreement," he told reporters.

Granda's release came Monday night, hours after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who was elected on pledges to crack down on the country's Marxist insurgencies, announced that the government would release more than 180 FARC members. Granda was the first.

The remainder of the prisoners have been transferred to holding facilities and are expected to be freed in the coming weeks, Uribe said.

FARC leaders denounced the government's offer, accusing Uribe of trying to divert attention from corruption probes of his allies and allegations of human rights abuses. The number of released FARC members was inflated, because it included "deserters" and civilians accused of aiding the rebels," the group's leaders said in a statement issued on their Web site.

Uribe has refused the FARC's demand to withdraw from the south. His predecessor, Andres Pastrana, ceded a section of central Colombia to the rebels in an unsuccessful bid to reach a peace agreement. Uribe quickly moved to retake that territory after he took office in 2002.

FARC is one of two leftist groups that have been battling the Colombian government for more than four decades. The group and the smaller National Liberation Army regularly use kidnappings to seek concessions from the government.

Betancourt, a French-Colombian, was kidnapped while running for president against Uribe, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a new effort to secure her release.

Journalist Toby Muse contributed to this report.


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