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McClatchy Newspapers

In Diplomatic Coup, Chavez Says Colombian Hostages To Be Released

Casey Woods

MIAMI - Three high-profile hostages held by Colombian rebels will soon be freed, perhaps as early as Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced Wednesday in Caracas.1227 07

The release of the three, including an aide to kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, would be a major diplomatic coup for Chavez, who a month ago had been told to stay out of hostage negotiations by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The way for the release was opened after Uribe agreed to allow Venezuelan aircraft bearing Red Cross insignia to cross the border and pick up the hostages.

Among those to be freed, Chavez said, are Clara Rojas, 44, and her young son, Emmanuel. Rojas was Betancourt's campaign manager when she and Betancourt were taken captive in 2002 as Betancourt campaigned for the presidency. Rojas gave birth to Emmanuel while a hostage, reportedly after a relationship with a guerilla fighter.

Former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, 57, who was taken captive in September 2001, will also be freed, Chavez said.

There was no word on freedom for Betancourt, who also holds French citizenship and whose release has become a cause celebre internationally. Chavez spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy about the pending release on Tuesday, French newspapers reported.

"The Colombian government thanks the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and in particular President Chavez for his interest in the unilateral and unconditional liberation of these three hostages,'' Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo wrote in a statement that granted permission for the Venezuelan planes to enter Colombia.

Last month, Uribe halted Chavez's efforts to mediate the hostages' release with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for the release of 45 political hostages, saying Chavez had overstepped his authority by attempting to speak directly to Colombia's armed forces commander for information on the captives. Chavez froze relations with Bogota after a round of mutual recriminations.

In announcing the possible release, Chavez said the pilots of the Venezuelan aircraft would not be told their destination until shortly before their departure. The hostages would then be flown to Venezuela, where they would be met by a committee that would include former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner and the ambassadors to Venezuela from France and Cuba.

Chavez said he would not personally attend the release, but that he would be willing to resume negotiating for a broader release, if Uribe agreed. The FARC holds hundreds of captives, including three Americans whose drug-eradication aircraft was shot down four years ago.

© McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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