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Colombians march for hostages' freedom

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of Colombians marched on Friday to demand leftist rebels free hostages they have held for as long as a decade or more.

Marches and rallies were held in dozens of Colombian towns and cities and 25 countries, said Maria Teresa Bernal of Redepaz, one of the organizers.

At similar rallies in July and February, millions packed avenues and squares. Bernal blamed lower turnout this time on rain and the damage wrought by pyramid schemes that fleeced many Colombians, particularly the poor.

In Bogota, marchers carried banners demanding "Freedom for All."

President Alvaro Uribe, who was visiting flood victims in a provincial town on Friday, has spurned negotiations with the country's main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, preferring efforts to defeat them militarily.

The rallies and marches were convoked by Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate rescued July 2 along with three U.S. military contractors in a bloodless mission by military intelligence agents.

"Your presence is the best Christmas gift for those helped in the jungle, who at this very moment are chained by the neck to a tree," Betancourt told a crowd of hundreds in Madrid, Spain. The dual French national has not been back to Colombia since her rescue, living in Paris with her children. She spent 6 years as a hostage.

The FARC still holds 28 high-profile hostages: two politicians and 26 soldiers and police. Colombian officials said earlier this year that the rebels hold about 700 hostages overall, though some suggest that number is unrealistically high.

Among those marching in Medellin, Colombia's No. 2 city, was Juanes, the star of this year's Latin Grammys. He said the relatively low turnout made him "a bit sad."

"At this moment those who are in the jungle are police and soldiers who aren't as well known as others who have been there and I think now more than ever we need to back this kind of march."