Bogota: Colombia's government has announced it is pardoning 30 jailed members of the FARC in what it called a confidence-building measure as it pursues peace talks with the leftist guerrilla group.
But as the pardons were being announced, a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia spokesmen in Havana said yesterday that rebel inmates were on hunger strike at 20 prisons over alleged mistreatment, a lack of health care and other grievances.
Ricardo Tellez, a FARC negotiator, said the hunger strike "that the government wants to silence" has been underway for 13 days.
He made no mention of the pardons, and it was unclear whether he was aware of the announcement in Bogota by the office of President Juan Manuel Santos.
"As part of the confidence-building gestures between the national government and the FARC, the national government has decided, based on its consitutional and legal authorities, to grant pardons ... To 30 guerrillas," the presidential statement said.
It said none of those being pardoned were in prison for serious crimes, and added that they will be helped in finding jobs and receiving social support once they leave prison.
Besides the pardons, the government said teams of health workers would check the health of 106 other imprisoned FARC rebels, and that special holding sites were being prepared for other FARC inmates with an eye to preparing them for re-integration to civilian life.
Earlier in the week, FARC spokesmen had told local media that some 850 jailed members of the guerrilla group have been on a hunger strike in 13 prisons since November 9 to press for humanitarian releases and improved prison conditions.
Tellez yesterday said that inmates at 20 prisons were involved in the protest.
Striking FARC inmates at one of the prisons, in the southwestern town of Jamundi, were beaten and doused with tear gas, he said.
More than "9,500 inmates are adrift, without medical attention, confined in 350 prisons ... And at times resisting repression by the guards," Tellez said.
Separately, the FARC issued a statement charging that 80 inmates were in urgent need of medical care, including 11 "in supremely serious condition who could die at any moment."
It called on the government to allow these inmates to be moved to house arrest or "to release those who no longer pose a threat to the state."
After three years of talks in Havana, government and rebel negotiators have been closing in on a peace agreement ending the 50-year-old conflict, Latin America's longest.
The sides have said they hope to reach an agreement in less than six months on the remaining issues, including compensation for victims and a mechanism for ratifying a comprehensive peace agreement.