Colombian rebels on Wednesday freed four hostages they had held captive for at least six years each, the guerrillas' second hostage release this year as they seek to persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist groups.
The rebels handed over the four Colombian politicians to the International Red Cross and Venezuela's interior minister around midday in a clearing in Colombia's southern jungles. Two Venezuelan helicopters with doctors aboard flew them to Venezuelan territory, on their way to family reunions in Caracas.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke to them by phone.
"They are safe and sound," said Jesse Chacon, a top Chavez aide. He said Venezuela hopes the release "will help us continue advancing on the path to achieving liberations of the remainder, and of course to what we all yearn for: peace in Colombia."
Chavez's intercession in Colombia's long-running conflict _ and the hostage releases it has reaped _ has raised the profile of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as it seeks to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of international terrorist groups.
The FARC has been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, but has in recent years drawn wide reproach for its methods: It kidnaps civilians for ransom and funds itself largely through cocaine trafficking. Colombia's government says it holds more than 700 people, either for ransom or political reasons.
The four hostages were freed in the same region of Guaviare state where the FARC released two other politicians on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez.
Released Wednesday were former Reps. Gloria Polanco and Orlando Beltran and former Sens. Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Gechem. All were said to be ailing _ Polanco with thyroid problems; Gechem with heart, back and ulcer problems.
"Such a kidnapping surely tears out one's insides," Daniel Polanco, the youngest of Gloria Polanco's three sons, told Colombia's Caracol radio from Caracas. He was 11 years old when his mother was kidnapped.
His two older brothers were seized with his mother and released in 2004 after a ransom was paid. Their father was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC. Daniel Polanco said they had bought their mother flowers, balloons, two or three changes of clothes and cosmetics "so she can be pretty the first days."
Aboard the helicopters were Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, and Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a close Chavez collaborator, as well as four Red Cross representatives and doctors.
In a statement Wednesday on a pro-rebel Web site, the FARC thanked Chavez for his mediation efforts. After last month's release, Chavez called on the international community to recognize the rebels as a legitimate armed opposition group, rather than calling them terrorists.
The rebels repeated their demand that a safe zone be created for talks that could lead to a swap of rebel-held hostages for imprisoned rebels. And they accused the hardline government of President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's top ally in Latin America, of mounting "a gigantic military operation" in the area where the hostages were freed.
The FARC has proposed trading some 40 high-value captives _ including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors _ for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas. It has held some captives for a decade.
But Uribe has resisted their conditions to begin a dialogue on a prisoner swap.
His defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told reporters Wednesday that the FARC "has always used the swap to win political space and try to discredit the government."
In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the liberation provides "powerful encouragement to mobilize all useful means to together find an urgent humanitarian solution to the hostage drama."
He vowed to "work relentlessly" for the freedom of the remaining captives _ Betancourt is a dual French national and a cause celebre in much of Europe _ saying "the survival of the weakest hostages ... is in effect at stake."
But analysts weren't sanguine.
"This release is very positive, but the larger hostage-for-prisoner exchange process is as stuck as ever," said Adam Isacson, Colombia analyst with the Washington-based think tank Center for International Policy.
"With this second unilateral release, the FARC are making clear that they only want to work with Hugo Chavez, as their preferred facilitator," he said. Uribe has ruled out Chavez as an intermediary.
"None of the parties wants to cede anything to the other," said Colombian political analyst Leon Valencia. "They'll cede to the international community, but not to one another."
The father of Pablo Moncayo, a soldier held by the FARC since 1997, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he's tired of being a pawn in a political game.
"I insist, for God's sake, that the FARC and President Uribe sit down and talk. Our relatives are decomposing in the jungle," Gustavo Moncayo said by phone.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.