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Chavez with Oliver Stone and Nestor Kirchner, discusses hostage recovery mission

Chavez with Oliver Stone and Nestor Kirchner, discusses hostage recovery mission

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 guerrilla insurgency.
Chavez is calling the mission "Operation Emmanuel," after the captive child who is believed to be the son of hostage Clara Rojas and a guerrilla fighter.
"We hope to rescue and liberate them in the coming hours," Chavez said Friday, wearing the red beret of his army days as he addressed troops in Caracas.
By special arrangement with Colombia's U.S.-allied government, Venezuela is sending two Russian-made MI-172 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.
International observers along for the ride include representatives from France, Switzerland, Latin American countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner joined the mission, as did American film director Oliver Stone.
Chavez inspected the helicopters _ carrying both Red Cross insignia and the Venezuelan flag _ at an airport in western Venezuela on Friday afternoon, where he also sang an impromptu song, joked with Kirchner and pointed out various Colombian locations on a map spread on the ground.
Waiting to join them in the central Colombian city of Villavicencio was Colombia's top peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, who said his government fully supports the mission and would keep its military operations from interfering.
The helicopters were to leave Friday for Villavicencio, where they will await instructions Saturday. For security reasons, Chavez said, the rebels have demanded that the Venezuelan pilots not be told where they will fly until they're airborne to multiple potential rendezvous points.
The secrecy surrounding the time and location of the handover, expected sometime over the weekend, reflects the mistrust of both sides in Colombia's civil conflict. 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.
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."
FARC's decision to release the hostages to Chavez has enabled the socialist leader to reassume a mediating role Colombian President Alvaro Uribe abruptly ended last month after accusing him of overstepping his mandate. Chavez said he now hopes to broaden this role and take "a first step to open a door toward the path for Colombia to have peace soon."
The lengthy process of coordinating the release reflects the logistical complications of communicating between isolated groups of rebels and hostages in remote jungle areas.
Thanks in part to aggressive American intelligence sharing backed by US$600 million (euro400 million) in annual military aid, Colombia's security forces have pushed the FARC into a strategic retreat, making it impossible for them to concentrate in large numbers without being detected.
Radio, cellphone and Internet communications entail similar risks. The widely-dispersed FARC leadership has responded in recent years by relying on less vulnerable methods for their infrequent contacts amongst themselves and with the outside world.
Human couriers were used to send out "proof-of-life" videos and letters last month from Betancourt, the three Americans and other hostages. Colombia's government caught the messengers, seizing the videos and letters. Chavez later complained the materials were intended to reach him but the delivery was sabotaged for political reasons.
Chavez has accused Uribe of caving to pressure from Washington, and on Friday denounced the U.S. government as "imperialist," a position shared by the Colombian rebels.
While turning over the hostages, the FARC will try to give away as little information as possible about the location of its fighters, said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota think tank.
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 Rangel, who predicted that the captives will be delivered far from the camps where they were held.
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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.