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Tight security in Colombia for rebel-held hostage handover

Tight security in Colombia for rebel-held hostage handover

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began a delicate operation on Friday to pluck three hostages from rebel-held areas of the Colombian jungle _ a process shrouded in secrecy due to the nature of the nation's ongoing guerrilla war.
Chavez is calling the mission "Operation Emmanuel," after the toddler who is believed to be the son of hostage Clara Rojas and a guerrilla fighter.
"The logistics are prepared," Chavez said Thursday night. "Let's be patient and ask God to help us and have faith that everything is going to turn out well."
By special arrangement with Colombia's U.S.-allied government, Venezuela is sending two Russian-made MI-17 helicopters to still unidentified spots in the jungle to pick up former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Rojas and the boy, who is thought to be 3 years old.
Aboard the helicopters will be international observers from France and five Latin American countries, inlcuding former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Colombia's top peace negotiator and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Chavez said the helicopters would depart from an airport in the western Venezuelan town of Santo Domingo on Friday afternoon for the central Colombian city of Villavicencio, which is to be the air base for coordinating the operation. He planned to personally inspect the aircraft before takeoff.
The handover, expected sometime over the weekend, is shrouded in secrecy and shaped by nature of Colombia's guerrilla war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been fighting for more than four decades, and its guerrillas are dispersed in remote camps in the jungles and countryside.
For security reasons, Chavez said, the rebels have demanded that Venezuelan pilots not be told where they will fly ahead of time. Also, there may be multiple potential rendezvous points, for security reasons.
Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped along with the French-Colombian politician nearly six years ago. The pending release has raised hopes for relatives of Betancourt and dozens of other high-profile hostages, including three American defense contractors.
Thanking Chavez for his efforts, relatives of the three hostages flew to Venezuela on Thursday in hopes of finally being reunited.
Emmanuel's grandmother, Clara Gonzalez de Rojas told state television: "I hope to have him in my arms."
Chavez said Thursday he hopes _ in spite of a recent spat with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe _ to continue to help mediate the freedom of more hostages and take "a first step to open a door toward the path for Colombia to have peace soon."
The lengthy process of coordinating the three hostages' release shows how logistically complicated it is for the FARC to liberate them while giving away as little information as possible about where their fighers and other hostages are located.
The guerrillas "above all are going to make sure to prevent this operation _ or information that could be deduced about them _ from being used militarily by the government," said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota think tank.
In all likelihood, the captives have been brought far from the camps where they were being held for the handover, he said.
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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.