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Colombian rebels release two police hostages

Written by: Staff
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BOGOTA, Colombia, Mar 26 (Reuters) Colombian rebels released two police officers taken hostage last year -- a move analysts said was aimed at helping one of President Alvaro Uribe's little-known rivals in the May election.

Authorities said the officers were freed in the southern province of Putumayo yesterday. Presidential candidate Alvaro Leyva has said in recent weeks he had requested their release and promised to jump-start peace talks with the leftist rebels if elected.

The former government minister is at less than 1 percent in opinion polls.

''This liberation was an electoral act, not a humanitarian act. The rebels want to diminish Uribe's support,'' said Alfredo Rangel, director of Bogota think tank Seguridad&Democracia.

Rangel and other analysts said the move by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was meant to show peace might be possible under a president other than Uribe, who is popular for cutting crime as part of his US-backed military crackdown on the rebels.

The FARC, fighting a four-decade-old insurgency, played a key role in the 1998 election of former President Andres Pastrana, with whom it said a peace deal might be possible.

Leyva is not considered a serious threat to Uribe.

The International Red Cross said the officers were released in good health. Uribe called on the rebels to release other hostages, including three American defense contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian-French national seized while campaigning for Colombia's presidency in early 2002.

The FARC says it is fighting for socialism in a country with deep divisions between rich and poor, but even mainstream leftist politicians say the group has scant popular support.

Human Rights Watch slammed the rebel group for ''massacring'' dozens of civilians, including children, in an effort to intimidate voters before legislative elections earlier this month.

Thousands of Colombians are killed and tens of thousands are forced out of their homes every year by the conflict.

REUTERS CH RAI0906

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