Farc's holding of prisoners is a war crime, UN warns


THE UNITED Nations has warned Colombia’s largest guerrilla movement that its policy of holding military and civilian prisoners is a war crime and it called on the group to release all its remaining captives immediately.

The demand follows the release on Tuesday by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) of one of its longest-held prisoners with the warning that it would free no more unless the Colombian government released jailed guerrillas.

But calling for the immediate release of all Farc prisoners, the UN warned the guerrillas that “the systematic and prolonged privation of the liberty of military and civilians and the inhumane and degrading treatment to which they are submitted constitutes a war crime and could also constitute a crime against humanity according to international human rights law”.

After 12 years in jungle captivity Sgt Pablo Emilio Moncayo was turned over to the Red Cross on Tuesday. The Farc still holds his colleague Libio José Martínez, who was captured with Sgt Moncayo and is now the longest-held of the 21 military and police prisoners in rebel hands.

On Wednesday Mr Martínez’s 12-year-old son, born after his father was captured, made an emotional plea to the guerrillas for the release of his father. Sgt Moncayo said Mr Martínez and his fellow captives were well but feared for their lives and called on the international community to work for their release.

Dozens of civilians are also held by the Farc, many for ransom. Former prisoners say they suffer often appalling conditions. When not on forced marches through the rainforest to avoid military patrols, they are often chained to trees and many suffer from debilitating jungle diseases. The prisoner issue is deeply emotional in Colombia, which has seen mass demonstrations in recent years to demand the release of those held in the jungle.

The Farc insists it has always been willing to discuss prisoner exchanges, a move long ruled out by the government. But President Álvaro Uribe has softened his stance in recent days, saying the government would consider a deal so long as guerrillas released did not return to the Farc.

The release of Sgt Moncayo has also sparked a dispute between the Colombian authorities and the Venezuelan-backed broadcaster Telesur.

The Colombians have demanded to know how Telesur had exclusive access to Sgt Moncayo’s handover to the Red Cross, which was supposedly closed to the press.

But Telesur, which was set up by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as a left-wing alternative to CNN, said it was e-mailed the video and that no Telesur personnel had been present at the handover.

The right-wing Mr Uribe has accused his ideological foe, Mr Chávez, of providing support for the Farc, including sanctuary and arms. While calling on it to end its campaign, Mr Chávez has backed the Farc’s demand for international recognition of its belligerent status, and observed a minute’s silence on his weekly television show to mark the death of the movement’s founder, Manuel Marulanda in 2008.

During eight years in office, Mr Uribe has overseen a prolonged, US-funded military offensive against the country’s Marxist guerrillas, forcing them to retreat from the main population centres to remote jungle regions.

The Farc, the oldest and largest of Colombia’s guerrilla movements, has had dozens of its military “fronts” broken up and has seen the number of its fighters halve to an estimated 9,000 since Mr Uribe took power, with the military killing several of its leading commanders.

On Wednesday, the Colombian authorities said they had killed the commander of the Farc’s 50th military front in an operation that saw several other guerrillas killed and captured and the unit broken up.