updated 8/23/2004 3:16:52 PM ET 2004-08-23T19:16:52

Colombia’s main rebel group on Monday criticized a government proposal to swap jailed guerrillas for kidnapped politicians, soldiers and three American contractors, saying any deal should allow its freed comrades to return to the rebel ranks.

But the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said it has made note that the government had made the proposal and said it hopes the two sides eventually can find common ground for some type of swap.

The FARC criticized a specific condition of the government proposal, announced by President Alvaro Uribe’s administration Wednesday, that says guerrillas freed from prison must either leave the country or enter a government-sponsored program to bring them back into society.

“Where’s the exchange when the government keeps hold of the guerrillas?” the FARC asked.

Deciding who and how many
The rebels also said they, and not the government, should decide “which and how many” of its jailed comrades are set free.

The government’s proposal called for 50 jailed rebels accused of minor crimes to be freed in exchange for an equal amount of the rebels’ so-called political hostages.

Leon Valencia, a political analyst and former guerrilla, called the FARC’s response “mostly positive.”

“By saying it wants to decide ’how many’ of its imprisoned soldiers are freed, the FARC is accepting they won’t all be released,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a willingness to negotiate.”

But he said the statement’s anti-Uribe rhetoric is designed as an internal memo to the FARC’s 16,000 soldiers scattered throughout Colombia, reassuring them that the FARC will not capitulate to this administration.

The rebels also indicated that any future negotiations for a prisoner swap should be formalized with pre-chosen negotiators from each side.

Uribe, a conservative who took office two years ago on a promise to defeat Marxist guerrillas, has had no formal talks with the FARC.

Indeed, while Uribe’s office said it sent its prisoner swap proposal to the FARC July 23, the rebels say they knew nothing about it until the proposal hit the public airwaves last Wednesday.

The government was not immediately available to comment on the FARC’s response.

U.S. hostages taken 18 months ago
While the FARC kidnaps hundreds of people a year for financial gain by demanding ransom for their release, it also holds dozens of so-called political hostages, including politicians, police officers, soldiers and three American military contractors taken hostage 18 months ago.

The prisoner swap proposal was a policy shift for the Uribe administration, which has frequently criticized calls for such a move, saying it would only encourage the rebels to kidnap more.

Observers say negotiations for a prisoner swap could eventually lead to some type of peace negotiations between the government and the FARC.

Colombia’s rebel conflict has been raging for 40 years, and some 3,500 people are killed each year in the fighting.

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