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Colombians march to demand hostages release

/ Source: The Associated Press

Well over a million Colombians, clad in white and cheering "No more kidnapping," marked their independence day on Sunday with marches and concerts demanding freedom for hostages still held by leftist rebels.

Demonstrators chanted "freedom" in rallies across the Andean nation and in some 40 cities abroad including Paris, London, Miami, Beijing, Sydney and New York.

It was the second nationwide mobilization this year against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and its abhorred policy of kidnapping for ransom or political leverage. Latin America's last major rebel army holds dozens of hostages in Colombian jungle jails, some for more than a decade.

Bogota's central Plaza Bolivar was jammed with marchers waving miniature white peace flags, balloons and Colombia's red, blue and yellow flag. A least 900,000 marched in the capital alone, said city police commander Gen. Rodolfo Palomino.

Shakira performs in jungle
In the jungle border city of Leticia, native daughter Shakira performed after singing the national anthem at a military parade presided over by President Alvaro Uribe, with the presidents of Brazil and Peru attending.

"Today is a historic day. We unite, unite our voices in a single shout: Liberty!" Shakira said. Uribe said 120,000 musicians were taking the stage in cities and villages across Colombia.

In Paris, newly freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt presided over a concert held in the shadow of the Eiffel tower. She addressed Alfonso Cano, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that held her captive for more than six years.

"Understand that it's now time to stop spilling blood, that the time has come to exchange those rifles for roses," pleaded Betancourt, who showering hugs and kisses of appreciation on Colombian singer Juanes and Spanish singer Miguel Bose, who headlined the concert.

The Paris-raised Betancourt, whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 while she was running for Colombia's presidency, was rescued July 2 in a bloodless military mission along with 14 other hostages including three Americans.

A Colombian police officer freed with her, Sgt. Julio Cesar Buitrago, suggested the nation mark its July 20 independence day with a march to demand the FARC release the captive comrades they left behind.

A similar series of marches were held on Feb. 4, when the FARC was in the process of releasing of six Colombian politicians, including Betancourt's campaign manager, Clara Rojas.

After those releases, the FARC declared it would free no more hostages until Uribe agreed to trade imprisoned guerrillas for captives.

On Bogota's streets, marchers on Sunday wore T-shirts bearing the message "Free Them Now!" and "Freedom for All." One group of 20 marchers wore chains around their necks, mimicking conditions of those held captive.

Uncertainty over protest's influence
While Sunday's marches marked a strong expression of solidarity and repudiation of kidnapping, some participants were doubtful they would influence obstinate rebel leaders.

"I don't think this particular march will make the FARC release people," said Heber Delgado, 24, a Bogota economic researcher.

Among marchers in Bogota was Vice President Francisco Santos, who nearly two decades ago was himself a kidnap victim of drug traffickers.

Santos told The Associated Press that the FARC must recognize that "its fight is over and that the only option is to sit down for talks that would mean laying down their arms."

Another marcher, 60-year-old Vladimiro Bayona, lost his son Alexander to a FARC kidnapping on March 18, 2000, and has not heard from him since.

While Bayona said he didn't wish to criticize Uribe, he's troubled by one thing: "I just read that (the Palestinian militant group) Hezbollah had exchanged hostages with Israel. So why can't we in Colombia do the same?"

The FARC is at its weakest point militarily in 44 years of struggle. After the bloodless July 2 rescue, which boosted the president's approval ratings to record levels, Uribe froze all international mediation efforts with the guerrillas.

The government estimates the rebels have 700 hostages but acknowledges that tally includes people kidnapped since 1996, many of whom have likely died.