Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shakira to lead Colombian rallies demanding hostages' freedom

BOGOTA (AFP) - Pop star Shakira is to lead nationwide demonstrations in her native Colombia on Sunday demanding the liberation of hundreds of hostages held by rebels in the jungle for years.
Around 80 solidarity rallies are also planned in other cities around Latin America and the rest of the world, including one in Paris that will include recently freed Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt.

"On July 20, I want to shout out, with you, for the independence and liberty of those who are still hostage of the FARC in Colombia," Betancourt told the French parliament early this month.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continues to detain an estimated 700 hostages. Up to 2,000 more are believed to be held by the National Liberation Army, another leftist rebel group.

Sunday's rallies are calling for their immediate release, and those of prisoners held by other rebel groups.

Around five million people are expected to take part in demonstrations in some 1,000 towns and cities across Colombia.

The marches coincide with independence day celebrations in the southern town of Leticia, which are to be attended by President Alvaro Uribe and his guests, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Alan Garcia of Peru.

Shakira, Colombia's world-famous pop icon, is to sing Colombia's national anthem at the start of that commemoration before launching into a concert in support of the hostage liberation demonstration.

Juanes, another Colombian singer, and other high-profile musicians will also be lending their voices to the initiative, which will be the third national demonstration of its type in Colombia. The last one took place on February 4.

In the capital Bogota, more than 50,000 people dressed in white are expected to fill the central city square.

Some of the 14 other hostages who were freed with Betancourt through a Colombian military operation will be present here and in other cities.

Three US defense contractors liberated at the same time are back in the United States and will not be participating, however.

There are fears of a possible attack during the event. On Friday, Bogota authorities arrested two suspected FARC rebels, seizing from them about 30 kilograms of explosives which they allegedly planned to use during the march.

Olga Lucia Gomez, head of the Free Country Foundation working for the captives' release, said the rallies "are to demand not only the liberation of the rebels' hostages, but also all those being held against their will by whoever they may be."

Julio Roberto Gomez, president of a workers' union, told a media conference it was also an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the hundreds of hostages -- many of them poor rural residents -- who were not famous enough to generate individual public campaigns.

Politically, however, the Colombian peace process appears to be at an impasse.

Uribe's conservative government has vowed to seek direct contact with the FARC in an indication that it sees no future in mediation by France, Spain and Switzerland.

But the rebels have rejected direct talks and asked for mediation by leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, which, in turn, has been rejected by Bogota.



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