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Swiss get US support in Colombia peace talks

Switzerland welcomes Washington's support in its efforts, alongside France and Spain, to mediate in peace talks between the Colombian government and rebels.

Seven Democrat politicians in the United States have agreed to join the European mediating group in negotiations between the government and the main leftwing rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which could help clinch a prisoner swap.

Since December 2005, Switzerland, Spain and France have been involved in efforts aimed at winning the release of 500 rebels and 57 civilian hostages.

They include Ingrid Betancourt, who holds French and Colombian double nationality and was a candidate in the 2002 Colombian presidential election, as well as three US anti-drug agents captured in 2003. But the two sides have yet to agree on terms for starting talks.

“Switzerland welcomes this support from foreign personalities in the Colombian peace process,” Johann Aeschlimann, foreign ministry spokesman, said on Sunday, confirming that it had received a letter from the seven politicians.

The US lawmakers have offered to witness negotiations. In their letter they claim that “too much time has passed and the status quo is unacceptable”.

“The most important thing is the offer from these Congress members to go to the negotiation zone as guarantors. We believe this could help give confidence to the Farc, which has always been afraid to enter talks,” Colombian peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo told local radio.

The Bern-Paris-Madrid negotiating team has also been praised for its efforts. Restrepo said his government applauded the “commitment of Switzerland, Spain and France to achieve a humanitarian accord”.

The negotiator said they had worked “very actively and been extremely serious” in the process.

“They have done a very important job, extremely discretely and professionally, which we wish to acknowledge – both the government and Farc – as the appropriate facilitation channel,” he added.

This message follows criticism of Switzerland by the Colombian vice-president, Francisco Santos, who said Colombia was “worried” that Switzerland allowed Farc representatives – a terrorist organisation, according to Bogota – on its territory.

“Farc diplomat”

His comments were in reference to an anonymous source interviewed by the French-speaking Le Temps newspaper on March 15, who claimed to be a “Farc diplomat” living in Switzerland.

“I am the head of the Farc diplomatic delegation; I represent them among various European governments,” the 35-year-old man, who lives in Lausanne, told the newspaper.

According to the man, Switzerland accepts the presence of a Farc representative on its territory.

This claim was vigorously denied by the Swiss authorities both in Bern and in Bogota.

The Swiss ambassador to Colombia, Thomas Kupfer, told the Colombian foreign ministry on March 18 that there were no official Farc representatives in Switzerland, rejecting claims that the group enjoys immunity and privileges in the country.

Kupfer added that the Swiss authorities “remained resolute in preventing illegal and criminal activities within Switzerland linked to Colombia’s internal conflict”.

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The Colombian government and the 17,000 strong leftwing rebels, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), have been fighting each other for four decades.

Since December 2005, Switzerland, Spain and France have been involved in mediation efforts aimed at winning the release of 500 rebels and 57 civilian hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, a candidate in the 2002 Colombian presidential election. But the two sides have yet to agree on terms for starting talks.

The Farc, concerned for the safety of its negotiators, wants Colombia to withdraw government troops from a rural area nearly the size of New York City to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

President Alvaro Uribe says he is considering the idea but may instead try to rescue the kidnap victims, an option rejected by families of the hostages as too risky.

The 57 hostages are but a few of the estimated 3,170 kidnap victims held by the Farc, other rebel groups and common criminals in Colombia, according to government figures.

The guerrillas were organized in the 1960s to force land reforms and other measures meant to close the wide gap that separates rich and poor in this Andean country. They are said to fund their operations with extortion, kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling and contraband gasoline.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR