Colombian authorities confirmed Thursday that they began releasing some of the 30 guerrillas who were pardoned late last year amid ongoing peace talks.
The office of the High Commission for Peace said 16 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been freed in what the administration said was a goodwill “gesture” for reduced violence in the wake of a FARC unilateral ceasefire.
The release of the nine men and seven women comes as both the government and the guerrillas say they are closing in on a definitive peace deal that would end more than a half-century of fighting.
The released guerrillas had been jailed on charges of “rebellion” — a nonviolent crime that’s often used as a catch-all for guerrilla offenses.
Four of them, whom the government identified as Elky Javier Caballero Rodríguez, Carlos Antonio Ochoa Orjuela, Sandra Patricia Isaza Rincón, and Gloria Álvarez Mestizo will travel to Cuba, where the talks have been taking place for more than three years.
The administration said the four will eventually return to Colombia and help spread the word about the peace agreement.
“We assume the challenge of working toward reconciliation and true peace; that’s our obligation to the country, because our reason for being is the well-being of our people,” one of the guerrillas, Isaza, said in a statement carried by RCN Radio. “There is no peace without liberty.”
The other freed guerrillas will return to their homes with the assistance of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration. The government did not say when the final 14 detainees — who were all pardoned Nov. 22 — would be freed.
Also on Thursday, the FARC said the country needs to address the lingering issue of paramilitary violence. Colombia’s paramilitary groups disbanded beginning in 2003, but many went on to fill the ranks of powerful gangs. While the government considers those groups common criminals, the FARC insist they still have political underpinnings that threaten the peace process.
“It would be difficult to understand why the [FARC] completed the process of transforming from an armed organization to a political movement without having guarantees [that the paramilitary groups] were dismantled,” guerrilla negotiator Pablo Catatumbo said in a statement from Havana.
Earlier this week, the negotiating teams announced they had agreed to let the United Nations and neighboring countries form a verification team to oversee an eventual FARC disarmament and monitor a peace deal.
Despite the negotiations, the two sides remain at war. However, in July, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire as a gesture of goodwill. On Thursday, the Public Defenders Office said conflict-related violence was down 84 percent thanks to the detente.
The government has set March 23 as target date to finalize a peace deal but has also conceded that it might take longer.