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Colombian guerrillas released two high-profile hostages, allowing helicopters sent by President Hugo Chavez to airlift the women from rebel-controlled territory to relatives who have waited about six years for their freedom.
Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez were all smiles on Thursday as they shook hands with heavily armed rebels in a forest clearing before flying to Venezuela’s capital, where they were reunited with loved ones amid joyful sobs and hugs on the tarmac.
“President, a thousand thanks for your humanitarian gesture,” Gonzalez told Chavez in a call by satellite phone before they were flown to Caracas.
Chavez expressed hope the successful mission could be repeated for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and dozens of other captives held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But, he said, that largely depends on the willingness of Colombia’s US-allied president, Alvaro Uribe.
The handover was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers. And it was a major victory for Chavez, whose leftist politics helped gain the trust of the normally hermetic rebels.
Joined by their relatives, Rojas and Gonzalez met later Thursday with Chavez at the presidential palace, singing the national anthems of Venezuela and Colombia while a military band played.
“I hope the other kidnapped people are listening to me and know that this is a ray of light, and I hope to see them very soon. We are going to fight for them,” Rojas told Colombia’s Caracol Radio.
Rojas was managing Betancourt’s bid for the presidency in February 2002 when the two were kidnapped on the campaign trail. She gave birth in captivity to a boy fathered by one of the guerrillas. Betancourt - a French-Colombian - is still being held.
Wearing a photo of her son in a clear plastic case around her neck, Rojas said her first priority is to hug the three-year-old Emmanuel, who was taken from her eight months after he was born in a jungle camp.
Gonzalez, a former congresswoman, was abducted in September 2001. Her husband died during her captivity and a grandchild - now 2 - was born to one of her daughters.
Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who played a key role in the mission, said that Rojas and Gonzalez returned with “proof of life” letters from eight other captives, some of whom haven’t been heard from in years.
Chavez said the mission demonstrated “there are possibilities” of securing the release of other FARC hostages, including three American defense contractors. He volunteered to establish a “humanitarian camp” somewhere along Venezuela’s border with Colombia to facilitate more releases.
“Venezuela will continue opening the way for peace in Colombia,” Chavez said. “We are ready and in contact with the FARC, and we hope the Colombian government understands. I’m sure they will.”
Chavez suggested Colombia has wrongly seen military strikes as the way out of Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict, and said Uribe “must be called to rectify.”
“President, use me. I’m at your service,” he said, urging Uribe to let him to meet FARC commander Manuel Marulanda for talks. “I get in a helicopter, and in three hours I’m talking with Marulanda. Permit it.”
Thursday’s handover increases pressure on Uribe to make concessions for the release of 44 other high-profile captives.
“This proves that things are moving, that the mobilization is bringing its first results,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which has pushed hard for Betancourt’s release. “This commits us to boosting our efforts to bring the other hostages home.”
The guerrillas have offered to trade their 44 hostages for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the US Chavez had been trying to negotiate that exchange in November when Uribe called him off, accusing the Venezuelan of overstepping his bounds by contacting the head of Colombia’s army. In response, Chavez froze relations with Uribe.
The release of Rojas and Gonzalez could boost Chavez’s role as a mediator. Some say Uribe has little choice but to deal with the FARC through his Venezuelan counterpart, despite their rocky relationship.
Their release “is a reminder that Hugo Chavez, for all the political baggage and grandstanding that goes along with him, is right now the main channel for getting messages to and from the FARC,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
The FARC offered to release the two women directly to Chavez last month, along with Rojas’ son Emmanuel. The plan fell through on December 31 when the FARC accused Colombia’s military of operating in the area.
Uribe’s government denied that claim and said the guerrillas had backed out of the deal because they didn’t in fact have Rojas’s child - a theory proved by later DNA tests that confirmed he had been in a Bogota foster home for more than two years.
The International Committee of the Red Cross oversaw Thursday’s handover, while Colombia agreed to halt military operations in a swath of jungle to allow the mission.
Uribe thanked Chavez in a televised speech and reiterated his government’s offer to create a demilitarized jungle “meeting point” to discuss a possible prisoner swap with the FARC.
But, he added, “peace is achievable through firm, democratic security policies. Peace is not achievable by appeasing the terrorists.” (AP)
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