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Colombia Weighs Extraditing Rebel Leader

December 18, 2004

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombia’s president says he will extradite a captured Marxist rebel leader to the United States on drug-related charges if his guerrilla group does not free dozens of hostages, including three Americans and a German, by year end.

Ricardo Palmera, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would become the first member of the rebel group ever sent to face U.S. justice. He is wanted by a federal court in New York for cocaine trafficking.

President Alvaro Uribe on Friday signed extradition orders for Palmera after winning approval from Colombia’s Supreme Court. But he is ready to revoke the decision if the FARC releases the hostages before Dec. 30, his office said in a statement.

Uribe issued a list of 63 captives, including politicians, soldiers, police officers, three U.S. Defense Department contractors and a German businessman.

The three American captives held by FARC _ Tom Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell _ were captured in February 2003 after their small plane crash-landed in a rebel stronghold. Uribe’s list also included Lothar Hintze, a German hotel owner who was seized by armed men in March 2001 in western Tolima state.

The FARC has never claimed responsibility for Hintze’s kidnapping and his family always maintained he was abducted for ransom, not for political reasons. The FARC had no immediate reaction.

The group has said it will only release the hostages in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas, Palmera among them.

Analysts said it was unlikely the FARC would bow to Uribe’s ultimatum.

``The FARC won’t accept this type of deal because it would give the impression that they are giving in to government pressure,″ said Roman Ortiz, a terrorism expert at Los Andes University in Bogota.

Relatives immediately denounced Uribe’s move, saying it undermined efforts to reach a deal on a prisoner swap and could prompt the FARC to retaliate with an ultimatum of its own, putting the hostages’ lives in danger.

``It’s inhumane that both the FARC and the government use hostages in their political and military wrestling match,″ said Angela de Perez, the wife of a Colombian senator abducted by the FARC more than three years ago.

Uribe on Saturday defended his decision, saying: ``The government had two options: simply order the extradition (of Palmera) or explore a possibility for the release of the hostages.″

``For the good of Colombia, the government once more took a step and chose this ultimatum,″ Uribe told reporters during a visit to the southeastern city of Popayan.

On Thursday, Uribe said he would not extradite Salvatore Mancuso, the leader of Colombia’s outlawed right-wing paramilitary militias, known as the AUC, provided he stays in two-year-old peace talks with the government and ceases illegal activities.

The paramilitaries have been waging a two-decade war against the rebels and allegedly often acted with the support of army commanders.

Uribe has long used the threat of extradition to put pressure on Colombia’s insurgent groups. But his decision not to send Mancuso to the United Sates while signing extradition orders for Palmera has opened him up to accusations of double standards.

Oscar Silva, Palmera’s lawyer, denounced on local radio Saturday Uribe’s ``different treatment of the FARC and the paramilitaries.″

The president, however, has said the AUC deserves more leniency because it is pursuing peace talks and demobilizing fighters, while the FARC has shunned government offers to open negotiations.

More than 500 AUC fighters handed over assault rifles, pistols and grenade-launchers at a ceremony in Bugalagrande, 140 miles southwest of the capital Bogota, on Saturday. The handovers brought to nearly 3,000 the number of militiamen who have demobilized under the peace process.

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