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Hostages freed amid deadly energy company protests in Colombia

Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced on Twitter that his ministers had successfully negotiated the release of 88 hostages kidnapped during a deadly protest against the oil company Emerald Energy.

“Thanks to the efforts of defense and interior ministers, all police and oil officials detained in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, have been released,” Petro wrote on Friday.

In a video released to the media, Petro also appealed to the protesters, many of whom are from indigenous and rural communities, promising to “dialogue” with them “about their needs, their complaints, their claims”.

“This is a government for dialogue, a government that belongs to them,” Petro said in the video.

A total of 88 people were detained as part of the protests, which demanded that Emerald Energy make infrastructure investments and compensation for environmental damage to the surrounding community.

Nine of the first hostages were oil company employees. The other 79 were police officers.

In addition, two people were killed in the demonstrations: a civilian who was hit by gunfire and a police officer identified as 39-year-old Ricardo Arley Monroy.

The protests, which began Thursday, closed off access to an oil field and videos appeared to show protesters setting fire to company property.

On Friday, government officials, including Defense Minister Iván Velásquez and Interior Minister Alfonso Prada, traveled to San Vicente del Caguán, a municipality in the Colombian Amazon, to meet with protesters.

But ahead of the negotiations, Prada announced that full government dialogue would only be possible if the captured police officers and the six workers still detained as of Friday morning were given “immediate release”.

Protesters have called on Emerald Energy to rebuild roads and improve facilities such as schools in the largely rural area surrounding the oil fields.

A spokesperson for the communities involved in the protest told Al Jazeera earlier on Friday that an estimated 4,000 people, from agricultural and indigenous communities, had taken part in the protests.

The spokesman also denied reports that armed groups had infiltrated the demonstrations, calling the rumors an attempt to delegitimize the protesters’ demands.

Prada, the interior minister, appeared to address those concerns in a statement to local media on Friday.

“We are very careful not to stigmatize or allow the stigmatization of the social peasant movement in Colombia,” he told journalists. “But we are not so foolish as to think that there cannot be confounding factors that want to use social mobilization for their own particular illegal interests.”

Petro is considered the first left-wing president in Colombia’s history, having been inaugurated last August, and his government has approached the country’s nearly six-decade-long internal conflict with a policy of dialogue and negotiation, aiming for “total peace.” reach. ”.

His government recently resumed talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining guerrilla group.

But the protests in San Vicente del Caguán renewed criticism from conservatives that Petro has not acted aggressively enough to end lawlessness.

On Friday, far-right senator María Fernanda Cabal denounced Petro’s government on Twitter for showing “indifference” to the families of police officers held hostage by not taking stronger action.

In his video statement on Friday, Petro expressed his condolences to the victims of the demonstrations. He also condemned the “violent actions” during the protests, calling them counterproductive.

“What they are doing is destroying the possibility not only of having a popular, progressive government, but also of having ways of peace,” Petro said.