Hugo Chavez summoned support from leaders across Latin America as he prepared to send planes and helicopters into neighboring Colombia to pick up three hostages who have been held for years by leftist rebels.
The plan to receive the hostages - including a mother and her young son - was prepared by Chavez, leaving Colombian President Alvaro Uribe watching from the sidelines as he vacationed at his rural ranch.
Colombia’s largest rebel group announced last week that it would unilaterally hand over the three captives to Chavez, who said he hoped they could be flown back to Venezuela on Thursday. The international Red Cross said the release could take a few days.
The three hostages are former Colombian congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and Rojas’ young son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a rebel fighter.
Gonzalez and Rojas have spent about six years held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while Emmanuel is thought to be about three years old.
Chavez said he hoped another batch would later be freed, including Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who has received an outpouring of support in France and other countries.
Chavez asked allies to join a commission of international observers named by the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba, France and Brazil. Colombia followed suit, appointing an emissary.
The hostages’ release would be an international boon for Chavez, allowing the self-styled revolutionary to outshine Uribe - a US -backed leader with whom his relations have grown hostile - on the Colombian leader’s own turf.
Chavez met with officials at the presidential palace late Wednesday as they prepared for the hostage release, an official at Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said officials had begun “the long process of waiting to see what the FARC says, where the spot will be.”
Earlier, Chavez said aircraft were ready to fly in as soon as Colombia gave its “green light”. Announcing its approval, Colombia said the planes and helicopters must be properly marked with international Red Cross insignia.
Chavez said Venezuelan pilots would fly to the central Colombian city of Villavicencio, about 75 kilometres south of Bogota, and then take off in helicopters to meet the rebels and hostages at an unknown spot. The pilots would not be told exactly where they were going until they are in the air, for security reasons, he said.
In a letter, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told his Colombian counterpart, Fernando Araujo, that the hostages would later be flown from Villavicencio to “an airport in Venezuelan territory.” Announcing Colombia’s approval, Araujo thanked Chavez for his efforts.
“We don’t want to wait another day,” Chavez told a news conference, saying he hopes the captives will be able to “ring in the year 2008” with their families.
Yves Heller, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bogota, said details were still being worked out. The release could be Thursday “or it may take a few more days,” he said.
The captives’ relatives applauded Chavez’s mission.
Gonzalez’s daughter, Maria Fernanda Perdomo, said she and other relatives planned to fly to Caracas on Thursday in hopes of finally being reunited with her mother.
Perdomo called it “a small light” for the families of 44 other high-profile hostages - including politicians, police officers and three American defense contractors. The FARC calls them “political prisoners”.
Uribe has taken a hard line against the rebels since he took office in 2002 and remains at loggerheads with guerrillas over terms for a proposed swap of other rebel-held captives for guerrillas now jailed in Colombian and US prisons.
Colombia appointed its top peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, as its delegate to the international commission summoned by Chavez.
Argentina said it was sending former President Nestor Kirchner, a close Chavez ally and husband to newly elected President Cristina Fernandez, to Caracas, from where he would travel to Villavicencio. Fernandez praised Chavez’s efforts as an act of “solidarity”.
The release of the three prominent hostages would be the most important in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers it had captured and held.
Chavez was trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange before Uribe called him off last month, saying the Venezuelan had overstepped his mandate by directly contacting the head of Colombia’s army. Chavez has since frozen relations with Uribe. (AP)