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Chavez urges Colombian rebels to free all hostages PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Caracas, June 09 (bdnews24.com/Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged the new leader of Colombia's FARC rebels on Sunday to unconditionally release all prisoners from jungle camps, in an effort to galvanize international efforts to free high-profile hostages.

Chavez, accused by Colombia of supporting Latin America's oldest insurgency, mediated the first major hostage releases in years in January and February but there has been no further progress toward freeing more prisoners.

"The time has come for the FARC to release everyone. ... It would be a grand humanitarian gesture -- and unconditional. That's what I propose to the new leader," Chavez said in unusually blunt language toward the Marxist rebels.

Chavez appeared to be taking advantage of a historic change of leadership in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The rebels acknowledged last month their longtime leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, had died and been succeeded by Alfonso Cano, who political analysts say is more likely to negotiate over releases and possibly long-term peace.

The anti-U.S. Chavez, who has said persistently his goal is to negotiate an end to Colombia's civil war, said the conflict was anachronistic and served as an excuse for the United States to use its military aid in the region and treat him as an enemy.

"This (mass release) could be the first step toward what we yearn for here: that Colombia's internal conflict comes to an end," he said. "At this point in time, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place ... guerrilla wars are history."

Colombia's government welcomed Chavez's comments.

"Hopefully the FARC will listen," Interior Minister Carlos Holguin told local television.

CHANGE LABEL

A way to coax the guerrillas from the battlefield and into politics, Chavez has said, would be for foreign governments to label them as a belligerent group instead of as "terrorists." Such a group would have rights under international law but would not be able to hold hostages, he said.

Western powers such as France have pushed for regional diplomacy to free dozens of hostages, who at times are chained at the neck and include a French-Colombian politician and U.S. defense contractors.

Chavez is under pressure over his ties with FARC after Interpol confirmed the authenticity of rebel computer files. Colombian and U.S. officials say the files show close cooperation between the guerrillas and Chavez's government. He denies the charges.

The FARC is at its weakest point in years in its decades-old war due to senior rebels' deaths, high-profile defections and battlefield losses.

"This is my message for you, Cano: 'Come on, let all these people go.' There are old folk, women, sick people, soldiers who have been prisoners in the mountain for 10 years," Chavez said on his weekly TV show.

Carlos Lozano, a left-wing Colombian newspaper editor who has had past contacts with the FARC, told local radio on Sunday he and former Cabinet minister Alvaro Leyva had resumed preliminary efforts at negotiating a hostage deal. He said no results were expected soon.

The rebel group holds hundreds of captured security forces in secret camps as well as dozens of hostages it hopes to swap for its own senior imprisoned rebels.
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