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4 hostages freed by Colombian rebels, reunited with families in Venezuela

4 hostages freed by Colombian rebels, reunited with families in Venezuela

Four hostages were freed by Colombian rebels after six years of captivity and flown to Venezuela, where they appealed to President Hugo Chavez to help press for the freedom of all remaining hostages.
The ex-lawmakers were released Wednesday in a gesture coordinated with Chavez as the leftist rebels seek to put pressure on Colombia's U.S.-allied government and persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist groups.
"You've given me the opportunity to live again," hostage Gloria Polanco said as she was freed in a Colombian jungle clearing, thanking Chavez for allowing her to see her three grown sons again.
The four were reunited with relatives amid tears, hugs and grasped flowers at Caracas' international airport.
Then Chavez welcomed them to the presidential palace, where Polanco made a passionate plea for the Venezuelan leader to help win the release of ailing former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who is one of the most prominent captives.
"As a woman and a mother, I ask from my heart here in front of everyone that you fight to get Ingrid free as soon as possible," Polanco implored. "She is very ill, president, very ill. She has recurrent hepatitis B and is near the end."
Chavez turned to TV cameras recording the meeting and asked the rebel leader Manuel Marulanda, "from my heart to change Ingrid's location. Move her to a base closer to you, while we continue working to pave the way for her definitive release." Chavez called Betancourt's case "urgent."
He also pledged "to continue doing all we can to liberate the very last" of the hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The FARC has proposed trading some 40 high-value captives _ including Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors _ for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the liberation provides "powerful encouragement" toward finding a "humanitarian solution to the hostage drama."
But the Colombian government and the rebels remain far apart on the conditions for talks.
Chavez's intercession in Colombia's long-running conflict _ and the hostage releases it has reaped _ has raised the profile of the 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.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has tense relations with Chavez, thanked the socialist leader and called for the release of all hostages. He said Colombia is still in a fight "against terrorist actions" but is open to reconciliation.
The rebels have an ideological affinity with Chavez and have turned to him as their preferred facilitator.
Chavez said he hopes the hostage release, the second by the FARC this year, will open the way for a peace process. His government dubbed Wednesday's mission "Operation Path to Peace."
Venezuela dispatched two helicopters to Colombia's southern jungles, where the rebels turned over the four captives in the same region where they released two others on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez.
In a video of the handover, officials spotted the captives awaiting them on a rise in a clearing. The hostages wept as they hugged those sent for them. Polanco received wildflowers from a female guerrilla and sobbed "thank you, thank you."
Two of Polanco's three sons were kidnapped together with her and later released in 2004 after a ransom was paid. Her husband was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC.
As she held the flowers, she said: "I will lay these flowers at my husband's grave, and another stem for each one of my sons."
The video was broadcast by the Caracas-based TV channel Telesur.
A guerrilla commander who spoke in the video was asked if the group was bombed by the Colombian military. He said that after his group received the hostages, no.
"But yes, troops were very close and that prevented them from being freed much earlier," he said.
The operation was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the rebels turned over the four to Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, and Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a close Chavez collaborator.
Once the four landed in Caracas to emotional family reunions, they focused on calling for a quick effort to free more captives.
Polanco's three grown sons ran toward the plane, wearing T-shirts reading: "Freedom for all."
Another of the freed hostages, former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, said he last saw Betancourt on Feb. 4 and that she was in very poor shape.
"It's a question of time. We need to take immediate action to obtain Ingrid's liberation," he said.
"I don't know how I managed to survive," Perez added. "I had a heart attack, three diabetic comas. I've had all the tropical diseases there are."
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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia; Tatiana Guerrero in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia; and Fabiola Sanchez, Ian James and Sandra Sierra in Caracas contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-05-17 00:23 GMT+08:00