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Colombian rebels provided a pickup location for two women they have held hostage for years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said, and the Colombian government gave him the green light to launch a rescue mission.
Chavez said Wednesday that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, sent him the coordinates to pick up Clara Rojas - an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt - and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez. A previous Venezuelan-led mission to free the hostages failed just over a week ago.
“This morning we received the coordinates there in the Colombian mountains where Clara and Consuelo are,” Chavez said during a televised speech. “Hopefully, Clara and Consuelo will be free in the coming hours.”
Colombia’s government responded promptly, saying it was agreeing to the mission. Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said his government would “provide all the necessary guarantees” so the hostages can “return home as soon as possible.”
He said the mission would be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos met Wednesday night with Red Cross representatives in Bogota to discuss security guarantees, and later said the mission would likely be completed by sundown Thursday.
“We think that’s sufficient time” to finish the operation, he said.
Cuba’s ambassador to Venezuela would be the only foreign government representative on the Venezuelan-led mission, Santos said.
Earlier, Santos told RCN television that San Jose de Guaviare, a town in a FARC-dominated zone of eastern Colombia, would be the operation center for the mission, and that two helicopters had been authorized for the operation.
Barbara Hintermann, head of the Red Cross in Bogota, said she hoped the hostages would be reunited with family members Thursday night.
Chavez said Venezuela was ready to send the helicopters with Red Cross officials to Guaviare state.
“Hopefully early tomorrow, the Venezuelan helicopters with the Red Cross will leave from some point in Venezuelan territory to look for these two Colombian patriots and finally attain their freedom,” he said.
Chavez did not explain how he obtained the coordinates.
Chavez’s statements came after an earlier mission failed to obtain the release of Rojas and Gonzalez, along with a 3-year-old Colombian boy named Emmanuel - the product of a relationship between Rojas and a guerrilla fighter.
The guerrillas accused Colombia’s military of sabotaging the promised handoff, saying they couldn’t release the hostages due to military operations.
But the US-backed government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the guerrillas backed out of the deal brokered by Chavez because they didn’t have the child hostage as they’d claimed.
Results of a Colombian DNA test later proved Emmanuel has been in a Bogota foster home for more than two years, rather than held captive in the jungle.
A Colombian official said Wednesday that a second DNA analysis by the University of Santiago Compostela in Spain confirmed the boy in the foster home was indeed Emmanuel.
The official with the prosecutor’s office spoke on condition of anonymity. The laboratory is expected to officially announce the results by week’s end.
Gonzalez’s daughter, Patricia Perdomo, told state television in Venezuela that she looked forward to her mother’s release.
“We are very happy, very content knowing that - God willing - my mother could be free tomorrow,” she said.
The FARC are holding some 46 high-profile hostages - including three American defense contractors and the French-Colombian Betancourt - hoping to swap them for hundreds of jailed rebels.
Rojas was kidnapped in February 2002 while campaigning with Betancourt in a FARC-dominated region of southern Colombia. Gonzalez was abducted by the FARC in September 2001 near the city of Neiva. (AP)
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