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Venezuela Readies Colombian Hostage Operation

By Brian Wagner
28 December 2007

Venezuela planned Friday to launch an operation to pick up two women and a child held hostage by leftist rebels in Colombia's jungle region. VOA's Brian Wagner reports top officials from several Latin American nations gathered in Caracas to take part in the mission.

Argentina's former president Nestor Kirchner and officials from other Latin American nations traveled to Venezuela to serve as international observers on the mission. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said he planned the so-called humanitarian effort with the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and France.

Rebels say the three hostages are a former congresswoman, an aide to former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and her son, who was born in captivity. The three are among more than 40 so-called high-profile hostages, including three American contractors, held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Colombia associate for the Washington Office on Latin America, says the release of the hostages may help advance the peace process in Colombia.

"Everyone has great hopes that this could lead to an actual humanitarian exchange which in the end could start some steps toward a negotiated political settlement to the conflict," said Sanchez-Garzoli.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has offered to designate a safe area to host talks about a release of other hostages and jailed rebels. FARC officials have asked for a larger, demilitarized zone in southwestern Colombia, a demand which Mr. Uribe has rejected.

The last time any high-profile hostages were released was before 2002, when President Uribe took office vowing to crack down on FARC rebels.

Sanchez-Garzoli said the cooperation of Venezuela and other Latin American nations has provided a breakthrough in the stalled peace process between Colombia's government and the rebels. She says there should be room for greater involvement from the United States in peace efforts.

"I do believe that a Latin American framework is probably the best framework for such an exchange in future political negotiations. But more than that, what is needed is that U.S. Congress supports these efforts," she said.

Sanchez-Garzoli says U.S. lawmakers this month have approved an aid package to Colombia that includes millions of dollars in military and economic assistance. But she says U.S. officials also should lend diplomatic assistance to Colombia to advance peace efforts and help win the release of the three Americans held by FARC rebels.

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