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Venezuela's Chavez agrees to receive Colombian rebel to discuss hostage-for-rebel deal

Venezuela's Chavez agrees to receive Colombian rebel to discuss hostage-for-rebel deal

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe agreed Friday to allow a representative of Colombia's largest guerrilla group to travel to Caracas for talks aimed at freeing rebel-held hostages, including politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors.
"I am prepared to speak with whomever they send," Chavez said after a six-hour meeting just outside of Bogota with Uribe to discuss advancing a possible swap of the hostages for imprisoned guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The FARC is holding 45 hostages, including soldiers, politicians and the three U.S. contractors abducted more than four years ago. In return for releasing them, the FARC wants hundreds of guerrillas to be freed, including two commanders now in U.S. prisons.
Success by Chavez in mediating a humanitarian swap could expand his influence and improve his image in the region, but it's a risky move _ he is stepping squarely into Colombia's civil conflict and generating optimism among the families of those long held captive by rebels. Seldom has Chavez involved himself so directly with the internal affairs of another nation.
Chavez also said in a news conference that he would also host talks between the Colombian government and the country's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. The two sides have been talking in Cuba, but recently negotiations have stalled.
Even though the FARC and the government agree in principle to the prisoner-for-hostage exchange, the details appear far being reached. The FARC is insisting on a 45-day demilitarized zone for the hand-over. Uribe has ruled this out. The rebels also want released guerrillas to be allowed to return to the insurgency, something the government also has rejected.
Families of the kidnapped are optimistic nevertheless that Chavez, who has turned Venezuela into a socialist republic, can find a way through the mutual distrust between Colombia's conservative government and leftist rebels.
Chavez said that while it is up to the FARC to decide whom it would send to Caracas, he hopes one day to meet Manuel "Sure Shot" Marulanda, the legendary guerrilla commander who has led the FARC for 43 years.
"He is a man with a lot of experience in the struggle, in politics," Chavez said while standing next to Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched kidnapping by the rebels.
The French-Colombian Betancourt, abducted as she campaigned for president of Colombia in 2002, recently marked 2,000 days in captivity. U.S. defense contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were snatched after their plane crashed in 2003 during an anti-drug mission.
On Thursday, France's Nicolas Sarkozy phoned Uribe to express his support for the talks.
Chavez also said Sarkozy had asked him to push for a so-called proof of life for Betancourt, such as a video.
Others have been pushing for the government and the FARC to come to an agreement. On a weeklong visit to Colombia, the spokesman for Britain's ruling Labour party in the European Parliament said European troops could be used to patrol a temporary demilitarized zone.
An "agreement to create a demilitarized zone involving a tiny slice of land the same size as Easter Island and representing just 0.015 percent of Colombia's territory as a location for a secure prisoner swap, is now standing between the FARC hostages and freedom," said Richard Howitt, the vice chair of the European Parliament's Human Rights Subcommittee.


Updated : 2021-06-20 19:20 GMT+08:00