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Chavez frees paramilitaries ahead of visit to Colombia

Chavez frees paramilitaries ahead of visit to Colombia

Brazilian President Hugo Chavez pardoned 41 Colombian paramilitaries jailed in Venezuela Thursday as a "good will gesture" on the eve of his visit to Bogota, where he hopes to mediate in a hostage crisis, the government said.
The pardon for the Colombians, who were convicted three years ago of plotting to overthrow Chavez, was announced in a presidential decree after Chavez earlier said he would free them "to trigger the hearts and good will" of Colombians.
Relations between the neighbors have often been tense over the past few years because of military incursions.
The Venezuelan president yesterday as to travel to Colombia to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and attempt to mediate in a prisoner swap between Uribe's government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
FARC is holding some 45 high-profile hostages, including three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, on whose behalf French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pressed Uribe to secure her release.
Colombia holds around 500 FARC rebels in its jails, but after months of talks both sides have failed to agree on conditions for an exchange. FARC wants to demilitarize parts of Colombia and have all freed rebels returned to ranks, while Bogota rejects any move it deems would increase the rebel group's power.
Pressure from hostage relatives, including Betancourt's parents, on Uribe and Sarkozy to achieve a prisoner-swap have increased lately. On August 20, a group of them met with Chavez and convinced him to serve as mediator.
Sarkozy, who has put Betancourt's release after more than 2000 days of captivity at the top of his humanitarian agenda, on Wednesday called Chavez to discuss the hostage crisis in Colombia, a spokesman for the French president said in Paris.
Sarkozy's efforts led to Uribe's release in June of the FARC's "foreign minister" Rodrigo Granda, who was to help negotiate the prisoner swap. Granda has since moved to Cuba and no deal is yet in sight.
Uribe's unilateral release in June of more than 100 FARC rebels, as a gesture to get the talks going, was also met with indifference.
Chavez's pardon of the Colombian paramilitaries, according to his former chief of staff, retired general Alberto Muller Rojas, "is a good-will gesture ... that in some way will influence his conversations with Uribe."
Rojas also told AFP that Chavez's participation in the hostage crisis warrants the naming of a "FARC representative in Venezuela" to facilitate negotiations.
That would make it easier for Chavez to bring together Colombia's ambassador to Venezuela Fernando Marin Valencia and the Marxist rebel group, Rojas said.
Besides meeting with hostage relatives, Chavez recently said he had also had "contacts" with FARC's top leader Manuel Marulanda.