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Colombia approves Venezuelan mission to pick up 3 hostages held by rebels

Colombia approves Venezuelan mission to pick up 3 hostages held by rebels

Colombia agreed Wednesday to allow Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to send his planes and helicopters into its territory to pick up three hostages who have been held for years by leftist rebels.
Chavez said he hoped the hostages _ including a mother and her young son who have spent years in captivity _ could be on Venezuelan soil by sundown Thursday. The international Red Cross said, however, that it might take a few days.
Colombia's largest rebel group announced last week that it would unilaterally hand over the three hostages to Chavez, demonstrating the guerrillas' affinity for the socialist leader while sidelining Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by preventing him from being directly involved in the release.
The hostages include former Colombian congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas _ an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt _ and Rojas' young son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter.
Gonzalez and Rojas have spent about six years held in captivity by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Chavez said "we have information they are in good health."
Colombia said the planes and helicopters sent from Venezuela must be properly marked with international Red Cross insignia. Chavez said the aircraft were ready to fly in as soon as Colombia's U.S.-allied government gave its "green light."
"We don't want to wait another day," said Chavez, adding that he hopes the three are able to "ring in the year 2008" with their families. He also suggested meeting them personally once they reach Venezuelan soil: "Maybe I'll go to some point on the border to receive these people."
Chavez said Venezuelan pilots would fly to the central Colombian city of Villavicencio, about 75 kilometers (50 miles) south of Bogota, and then take off in helicopters to meet the rebels and the hostages at some unknown spot. The pilots would not be told exactly where they were going until they are in the air, for security reasons, he said.
"It's a demand by the FARC that I understand, being the military man that I am," Chavez said.
In a letter, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told his Colombian counterpart, Fernando Araujo, that the hostages would later be flown from Villavicencio to "an airport in Venezuelan territory." Announcing that Colombia had authorized the mission, Araujo thanked Chavez in particular for his efforts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was in contact with the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, as well as with the FARC, to work out details, said Yves Heller, spokesman for the ICRC in Bogota. "It could be tomorrow or it may take a few more days," he said.
Chavez met with officials at the presidential palace late Wednesday as they prepared for the operation, an official at Venezuela's Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak publicly.
He said Venezuelan officials had begun "the long process of waiting to see what the FARC says, where the spot will be, because it's not clear where or when" the release will take place.
Gonzalez's daughter Maria Fernanda Perdomo said she and other relatives planned to fly to Caracas on Thursday.
A commission of international observers _ appointed by the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba, France and Brazil _ would oversee the release, Chavez said. The Colombian government appointed its top peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, as its delegate.
Argentina said it was sending former President Nestor Kirchner, a close Chavez ally and husband of newly elected President Cristina Fernandez, to Caracas, from where he would travel on to Villavicencio. Fernandez said Argentina stands behind Chavez, calling his efforts an act of international "solidarity."
Chavez said he hopes another group of hostages would later be freed, including former presidential candidate Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
The release of the three hostages would be the most important in Colombia's armed conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers it had held captive. It would also be the highest-profile hostage release during the presidency of Uribe, who took office in 2002.
The announcement by Colombia's largest rebel group last week that it would hand over the three gave Chavez's involvement as a mediator a boost.
The FARC has previously offered to free 47 high-profile hostages, including Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, in return for the release of hundreds of rebels held in Colombian and U.S. prisons.
Chavez was trying to negotiate such a swap before Uribe called him off last month, saying the Venezuelan president had overstepped his mandate by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army. Chavez has since frozen relations with the U.S.-allied Uribe, accusing him of caving to pressure from Washington.
Chavez said Wednesday that "all of them, including the three gringos," would have been released if Uribe had allowed him to continue mediating.
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Associated Press writers Toby Muse and Joshua Goodman, in Bogota, Colombia; Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas; and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-04-23 11:33 GMT+08:00