Hostage releases: Watershed in Colombia's conflict?

Handout photo released by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) of former FARC hostage Cesar Augusto Lasso Monsalve (right) The long ordeal of the hostages and their families ended on Monday

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The release of 10 soldiers and policemen by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) could well mark a turning point in the country's long civil conflict, with the guerrillas now pressing for peace talks.

While the former hostages undergo a battery of medical tests to find out what physical and mental scars more than a decade in captivity has left on them, Colombians are wondering whether their liberation could be he gateway to peace.

President Juan Manuel Santos has stated that time is not yet right for talks, although the door is most certainly ajar.

"This is a very important step and a move in the right direction to achieve peace," said Mr Santos after the hostages were released on Monday afternoon.

But he added: "The country and the world is clamouring for the release of all kidnap victims."

President Santos was referring to up to 400 people believed kidnapped by the Farc for ransom.

The real number still in Farc hands is certain to be much lower, with some of the victims having died in captivity, and others snatched by groups masquerading as the guerrillas in order to prompt higher ransoms.

However with this declaration, President Santos buys himself some time.

Pressure for peace talks is certainly building, but the president will have his eye on the electoral cycle, and his potential re-election in 2014.

Money stream

These latest releases, combined with the announcement in February that the Farc would halt all kidnapping, signal a profound change in the way the rebels operate, and is a quantum shift in their overall strategy.

Colombian national flag and a banner that reads "No More Farc" during a demonstration in November 2011 Colombians have taken to the streets to call on the Farc to stop attacks and kidnapping

It marks the abandonment of their aim to secure the release of imprisoned comrades by capturing and kidnapping members of the security forces and politicians to force a prisoner exchange.

Admittedly this strategy probably ended in July 2008, when the Colombian army, in a daring operation, rescued 15 hostages from Farc hands.

These included their highest-profile bargaining chip, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

By giving up all kidnapping, the guerrillas shut down one of their traditional streams of income, although in recent years drug trafficking and extortion have far outstripped money earned from ransom.

The conditions today for peace talks could not be more different than those in 1999, the last time the government and the Farc sat down at the negotiating table.

Then the guerrillas had inflicted a series of defeats on the demoralised Colombian army. Farc founder Manuel Marulanda (real name Pedro Marin), had demanded, and received, a safe haven the size of Switzerland, cleared of all troops.

Now it is the Farc who have suffered the defeats, thanks to the newly invigorated, reformed and better-equipped US-backed Colombian military.

Over the last 10 years the rebels' numbers have been halved from around 16,000 to 8,000 fighters.

Whereas they once controlled more than a third of Colombia, now they have been pushed back into mountain and jungle strongholds.

They are forced to remain on the move to stay one step ahead of the security forces.

Drawn to crime?

Perhaps the most crippling blow has been the killing of top leaders, after Colombia adopted the US strategy of taking out "high-value targets".

Thanks principally to precision airstrikes, over the last four years the Farc have lost five members of the seven-man Secretariat, their supreme body.

Farc leader in a video grab from Venezuela's Telesur TV in 2008 Farc leader Timochenko: Can he keep the rebel ranks together?

These included the rebels' leader Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias Alfonso Cano, who was killed by security forces last November.

Equally important has been the loss of dozens of middle-ranking commanders, responsible for leading rebels into combat.

Rodrigo Londono, better known by his guerrilla alias of Timochenko, is the rebels' current leader.

But he is facing a leadership crisis, not so much at the higher end of the organisation, but among those mid-level commanders responsible for carrying out actions and maintaining discipline among increasingly dispersed rebel units.

Some of these commanders have never met a member of the Secretariat, and are beginning to see the vast sums of money coming in thanks to drug trafficking and extortion as an end in themselves, not as a means to fuel the revolutionary struggle.

But the Farc are far from beaten.

Traditionally they have used peace processes with the government to regain political traction and build up their war machine and finances.

It may well be that this is exactly what Timochenko wants. He certainly needs to not only consolidate his leadership over an increasingly fragmented guerrilla force, but the chance to regain some political relevance.

In the last three years, the rebels have managed to step up the rhythm of their attacks.

A Colombian police officer inspects a pack of confiscated marijuana in Cali February 27, 2012. Drug-trafficking has become a key source of funds for the rebels

But these are not the large-scale ambushes carried out by heavily armed and uniformed rebel columns, as seen during the 1990s, but rather attacks with explosives placed by small rebel groups often in civilian clothing.

It is increasingly likely that there will be some sort of dialogue in the near future.

What is also likely is that the rebels will continue to increase their attacks in the hope of strengthening their position at any negotiating table.

Whether to opt for talks is in the hands of President Santos.

What he has to consider is that the longer he waits, the more likely it is that elements of the Farc will become little more than highly motivated and heavily armed drug cartels.

And then they will be unlikely to obey any call that Timochenko may issue to lay down their arms.

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