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Colombia OKs Venezuelan role in hostage release

December 27, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — In an unusual twist to an ongoing hostage saga, President Alvaro Uribe has agreed to let emissaries of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez travel to the Colombian jungle to take custody of three kidnapping victims set for release by their leftist rebel captors.

The exchange could take place as early as today. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said last week that it would release hostages to Chavez if the logistics could be worked out.

Hostages to be released include former presidential campaign manager Clara Rojas and her young son Emmanuel, who was born in captivity. Rojas was abducted in 2002 along with her boss, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who remains a captive. Former Colombian legislator Consuelo Gonzalez is also to be released.

FARC's offer to release the prisoners, who are among 45 political hostages in rebel custody, came weeks after Uribe abruptly ended mediation efforts by Chavez to secure the release of prisoners. Uribe said that Chavez had broken protocol by talking to a Colombian military leader.

The two leaders then traded insults, with Chavez charging that Uribe was doing the bidding of the United States and squandering the possibility of a deal. Uribe countered that Chavez was trying to give FARC "terrorists" political legitimacy.

The rancorous collapse of the talks brought a renewed focus to the hostages, some held for a decade. Pais Libre, an advocacy group representing kidnapping victims' families, said it hoped the hostage release would serve as a "preamble" to freedom for the others.

Uribe has offered to release hundreds of suspected FARC rebels from jails in exchange for the hostages, but the two sides have been unable to agree on terms. Uribe has refused the rebels' demand that they be given the indefinite use of two counties in central Colombia.

At a news conference Wednesday at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Chavez unveiled his plan to send a "caravan" of Venezuelan planes and helicopters to Villavicencio, Colombia, about 50 miles southeast of Bogota, the capital.

From there, helicopters would depart to pick up the hostages. The precise locations would not be known until the choppers were in the air. The hostages would then be taken to Venezuela and reunited with their families.

The only condition Uribe set for the exchange is that all foreign aircraft entering Colombia have markings of the International Red Cross.

Representatives from Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador would go along as observers.

At his news conference, Chavez seemed to extend an olive branch to Uribe, saying he was willing to resume mediation efforts "despite all that has occurred and all the broken plates between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela."

Chavez also said the details for the release had been agreed to by FARC leaders.

In a statement accepting Chavez's proposal, Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo said, "The government of Colombia thanks the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in particular President Hugo Chavez," for taking on the humanitarian mission.

FARC gave no indication of whether it would release Betancourt or three U.S. defense contractors, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were abducted in February 2003.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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