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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 dozens of 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 an eight-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 rebels, he said, had already accepted the invitation.
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 further boost 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 held captive by rebels, some of whom have spent a decade in rebel hands.
Chavez 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 remain contentious. The FARC insist on a 45-day demilitarized zone for the hand-over. Uribe has ruled this out. The rebels also want released guerrillas 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.
Following Friday's meeting, Chavez said that these preliminary steps required "patience and prudence" but he was "optimistic." He said the FARC had sent him a private message _ the contents of which he would not divulge _ that morning.
Chavez said that while it is up to the FARC to decide whom it would send to the Venezuelan capital, 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," said Chavez.
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, and also, according to Chavez, to push for the FARC to hand over a so-called proof of life of 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, MEP Richard Howitt, said European troops could be used to patrol a temporary demilitarized zone.
Chavez and Uribe also said they discussed convoking an extraordinary meeting of the members of the Andean Community trade bloc to discuss Venezuela's possible return to the group. Chavez announced his withdrawal from the trade pact in April 2006 in protest at Peru and Colombia's decision to sign free trade agreements with the U.S.
"President (Uribe) asked us to bring our ideas, our proposals for the Andean Community," said Chavez, dressed in his trademark red shirt.


Updated : 2021-04-23 19:27 GMT+08:00