BOGOTA -- Four members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla unit that held former Congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano hostage for nearly eight years have deserted, a military spokesman said.
The four Aurelio Rodriguez Front fighters surrendered over the weekend in San Jose del Palmar, a town in Colombia's western Choco province, army 14th Mobile Brigade commander Col. Rafael Caicedo said.
Among those who surrendered was the FARC member known as "Karla," who guarded Lizcano for some time.
Lizcano, who was kidnapped in Caldas province on Aug. 5, 2000, escaped on Oct. 26 with the help of guerrilla Wilson Bueno Largo, known as "Isaza."
The rebel's actions prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce that Isaza would be allowed to live free abroad under the terms of an offer Bogota made to FARC deserters.
The Colombian government gave Isaza a reward of 1 billion pesos (some $462,290) and helped him secure asylum in France.
Isaza and his girlfriend, Lilia Isabel Baņol, who also deserted from the FARC, traveled on Dec. 9 from Bogota to Paris with former presidential candidate and hostage Ingrid Betancourt.
Betancourt, moreover, called last month on FARC rebels guarding hostages to desert and seek freedom along with their captives.
"Seek freedom, make a humanitarian gesture, make this be the last Christmas they spend in captivity," Betancourt, who has dual French-Colombian citizenship, told Caracol Radio's "Las voces del secuestro" program via telephone from Paris.
The FARC's Aurelio Rodriguez Front was "practically decimated" by the latest desertions, which followed the surrender late last year of some 20 other guerrillas from the same unit, Caicedo said.
The FARC, Colombia's oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group, was founded in 1964, has an estimated 8,000 to 17,000 fighters and operates across a large swath of this Andean nation.
The Uribe administration has made fighting the FARC a top priority and has obtained billions in U.S. aid for counterinsurgency operations.
The FARC, whose leader is Alfonso Cano, suffered a series of setbacks last year.
On July 2, 2008, the Colombian army rescued Betancourt, U.S. military contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, and 11 other Colombian police officers and soldiers.
The FARC had been trying to trade the 15 captives, along with 25 other "exchangeables," for hundreds of jailed guerrillas.
The rebels' most valuable bargaining chip was Betancourt, who the FARC seized in February 2002 and whose plight became a cause celebre in Europe.
FARC founder Manuel Marulanda, who was known as "Sureshot," died on March 26.
On March 1, Colombian forces staged a cross-border raid into Ecuador, killing FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes and setting off a regional diplomatic crisis.
Ivan Rios, a high-level FARC commander, was killed March 7 by one of his own men, who cut off the guerrilla leader's hand and presented it to army troops, along with identification documents, as proof that the rebel chief was dead.
A succession of governments have battled Colombia's leftist insurgent groups since the mid-1960s.
In 1999, then-President Andres Pastrana allowed the creation of a Switzerland-sized "neutral" zone in the jungles of southern Colombia for peace talks with the FARC.
After several years of fitful and ultimately fruitless negotiations, Pastrana ordered the armed forces to retake the region in early 2002. But while the arrangement lasted, the FARC enjoyed free rein within the zone.
The FARC is on both the U.S. and EU lists of terrorist groups. Drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom are the FARC's main means of financing its operations.