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FARC Frees Hostages in Deal Brokered by Chavez

Renee Montagne and Juan Forero discuss the release of two hostages by FARC rebels in Colombia on <em>Morning Edition</em>

Two female hostages held in the jungle by Colombian rebels for more than five years were released Thursday in a deal brokered by the president of Venezuela.

The women were escorted out of the jungle by armed guerrillas to a clearing where they were picked up by Venezuelan helicopters that bore International Red Cross insignias.

Clara Rojas, who was captured in February 2002, and former Colombian Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, abducted in September 2001, exchanged goodbyes with their captors before boarding the helicopters and being flown across the border to Venezuela.

Rojas and Gonzalez smiled broadly as they spoke by satellite phone with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who negotiated their release.

"A thousand times thank you," Rojas said. "We are being reborn!"

The women, who appeared thin but in good health, were flown across the border, then boarded a plane to Caracas, where Chavez greeted them with hugs and kisses at the presidential palace. The women and their families stood beside him and sang Colombia's national anthem while a military band played.

Years Bring Changes

Rojas was an aide to Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt when the two were kidnapped on the campaign trail. While being held captive, Rojas gave birth to a boy fathered by one of the rebels

Betancourt is still being held.

Getting off the plane in Venezuela, Gonzales embraced her 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time. She also became a widow during her years as a hostage.

Their release was a major triumph for Chavez, whose leftist ideology helped win him the role of mediator with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It was the most important hostage release since 2001, when the rebels freed some 300 soldiers and police officers.

In a statement published on a pro-rebel Web site, the FARC said the unilateral release demonstrated the group's willingness to engage the Colombian government in talks over the release of as many as 700 people who are still being held. Three American defense contractors are among the remaining hostages.

"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 understand."

In a televised speech, Colombia's U.S.-allied president, Alvaro Uribe, thanked Chavez for his efforts.

The release could help the flamboyant Chavez take on a greater role in Latin America's longest-running conflict, in spite of frosty relations with Uribe. The release puts pressure on Uribe for government concessions to secure the release of 44 other high-profile captives.

The rebels sent letters from eight hostages — including lawmakers, a former state governor and a police officer — to prove they were still alive, said Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who accompanied the rescuers.

Betancourt holds both Colombian and French citizenship, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was heartened by Thursday's hostage release.

"This proves that things are moving, that the mobilization is bringing its first results," said Sarkozy. "This commits us to boosting our efforts to bring the other hostages home."

The guerrillas have offered to exchange the 44 high-profile hostages for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the United States.

Chavez's efforts to negotiate an exchange stalled in November when Uribe said the Venezuelan leader improperly made direct contact with the head of Colombia's army. Chavez responded by freezing relations with Uribe.

Negotiations Continue

FARC offered last month to release the two women directly to Chavez, along with Rojas' 3-year-old son, Emmanuel. But that deal fell through Dec. 31, when FARC accused Colombia of conducting military operations in the area of the planned release.

Uribe's government said the guerrillas backed out because they didn't have the child. That claim was later proved by DNA tests that confirmed Emmanuel has been in a Bogota foster home for more than two years.

Rojas said her son was taken away from her eight months after his birth, and she didn't receive news of him again until three years later when Uribe said the boy was in foster care.

Rojas said she hopes to be reunited with Emmanuel.

"I was always very worried to know where my baby was," she told Colombia's Caracol Radio.

Chavez asked the news media to respect the women's privacy, but Venezuela's state-supported television network, Telesur, broadcasted video of the prisoner handover.

"President, a thousand thanks for your humanitarian gesture," Gonzalez was shown telling Chavez by satellite phone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross oversaw the handover, and Colombia agreed to halt military operations in a swath of jungle to allow the mission.

The head of the European Union's administrative body, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the release was an encouraging sign.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who once was held hostage by a criminal gang for eight months, applauded the release, but added: "Let's not forget the more than 750 other hostages being held by the FARC, some held for more than 10 years, about whom we know nothing."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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