BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Chased by the U.S.-backed armed forces, this country's largest rebel group is now under pressure to surrender from a surprising new source -- President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela.
During his nine years in office, the populist Chavez has regularly expressed support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Just months ago, he was pressing for steps that would lead to the FARC's being recognized as a belligerent, and no longer designated a terrorist group, as it is now by the U.S.
But Chavez surprised analysts and government officials when he advised the rebels to unconditionally release more than 700 hostages, lay down their weapons and make peace after 44 years of fighting.
"At this stage in Latin America, a guerrilla movement is out of order," Chavez told viewers of his "Alo Presidente" TV program Sunday. He called on the FARC leader known as Alfonso Cano to release hostages in a humanitarian gesture "in exchange for nothing."
Colombian officials said Chavez's statements might signal a change in his approach. Interior Minister Carlos Holguin told reporters he was surprised but happy to hear Chavez's statement. The U.S. government, which often ignores Chavez's anti-U.S. rants, quickly took note
"Those are certainly good words," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We would encourage Venezuela to follow those good words with concrete actions."
Under a program called Plan Colombia, this nation has received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to fight drug trafficking, which the FARC and other armed groups are involved in.
Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at National University of Colombia in Bogota, said that while Chavez's motives were unclear, the impact on the FARC "must be overwhelming."
"Chavez is an icon for them. But here he is telling the FARC to forget about a negotiated deal, just surrender unconditionally," Vargas said. "Secondly, he said that guerrilla movements make no sense in today's world. That kind of a statement has transcendence."
Chavez's admonition comes at a low point for the FARC. Over the last year, the rebels have suffered the killing and capture of several top leaders, increasing desertions and waning popular support because of the kidnapping and drug trafficking they use to finance the war. Founder Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack in March at 78.
It is unclear how much practical support Chavez provides the rebels.
His expressions of support began shortly after he took office in February 1999. Residents in western Venezuela say the Colombian rebels come and go unchallenged, a sign of at least tacit support from Chavez's administration.
In a surprising turn, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe authorized Chavez last August to mediate a swap of hostages for prisoners held by the government. Negotiations collapsed in November, but not before FARC rebels visited Chavez in the Venezuelan presidential palace.
Files recovered in March from a slain FARC leader's computers depicted Chavez as promising moral and financial support, Colombian officials said.
Vargas speculated that Chavez, who regularly heaps scorn on President Bush, may be positioning himself for a changing, perhaps more amenable political dynamic if Democrat Barack Obama takes office.
Others such as Venezuelan political consultant Luis Vicente Leon theorized that Chavez is chatting up peace for his domestic audience. His tacit support for the FARC has caused security problems on the border with Colombia and alienated voters. The president's allies will face voters in November in state and local elections.
One U.S. government source said that his peace overtures might be intended to distract attention from an incident Friday in which a Venezuelan national guard sergeant was caught delivering 40,000 rifle shells to Colombian rebels at the remote Puerto Narino border crossing in the eastern Colombian state of Vichada.
Sgt. Manuel Agudo Escalona pleaded guilty Sunday in Bogota, the Colombian capital, after being arrested with another Venezuelan and two Colombians.
Colombia has released few details of the case. But the arrests brought to mind the government's assertions, so far uncorroborated, that the FARC files allude to promises made by the Chavez government to help rebels secure arms.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin on Monday acknowledged that Agudo was a sergeant in the national guard. But he said he was lured with a $600 bribe to cross a river into Colombian territory to help complete a smuggling deal.
Once Agudo was on the boat and headed to the Colombian side, his boat was intercepted and boxes of ammunition placed on board. The boat subsequently was steered across the river where Colombian authorities were waiting to arrest him, Chacin said.
A spokesman for the Colombian chief prosecutor's office dismissed Chacin's assertion as "politics," but declined further comment.
Also on Monday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a radio reporter that Colombian armed forces recently had spotted three U.S. contractors, Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, held captive by the FARC since their plane went down in the jungle in 2003.
Efforts to rescue the Americans, who could be heard speaking English as they bathed in a river, failed as their captors quickly spirited them into the jungle.
Special correspondents Mery Mogollon in Caracas, Venezuela, and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota contributed to this report.