Chavez hails Colombian hostage rescue, wishes talks with Uribe

July 4th, 2008 - 12:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Caracas, July 4 (IANS) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has congratulated the Colombian army for their historic operation rescuing former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others from the captivity of leftist guerrilla rebels without spilling a drop of blood, and again urged the guerrillas to abandon armed struggle. “We share the joy. We are happy and jubilant about the liberation of those people, and happier because it was done without spilling a drop of blood,” EFE news agency quoted Chavez as saying at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) officials on Venezuela’s Margarita Island Thursday.

“We here remain at (Bogota’s) service and with the disposition to aid the liberation up to the last hostage and beyond that, to achieve peace in Colombia, full peace,” Chavez said, mentioning a congratulatory phone call he made Wednesday night to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The leftist Venezuelan leader spent several months last year trying to broker a prisoner exchange between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and Uribe’s government.

Though Uribe eventually pulled the plug on that effort, Chavez managed to persuade the rebels to unilaterally free six captives earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Colombian military intelligence operatives tricked a FARC commander into handing over 15 of the 40 “exchangeables” the guerrillas had been hoping to trade for hundreds of jailed comrades.

The group freed in Wednesday’s operation included three US military contractors and 11 Colombian officials, besides the most prominent hostage Betancourt, who holds a dual French-Colombian citizenship.

Chavez said Thursday that he first learned of the rescue while visiting a public-works building site on the outskirts of Caracas, where a Colombian construction worker shouted to him from the scaffolding to share the good news.

Later Thursday, Chavez said he would soon welcome Uribe to Venezuela for a meeting to definitively resolve bilateral tensions that have arisen in connection with the FARC.

Uribe, Chavez said, “will be received as always: a brother, like a friend. We say very tough things; those things also happen among brothers … it passed and, I hope, is over for ever.”

Relations between the two leaders strained since Uribe cancelled the Venezuelan leader’s authorisation to mediate with the FARC on hostage release last November.

Things grew worse with Colombia’s March 1 raid on a clandestine FARC camp in neighbouring Ecuador, which resulted in the deaths of FARC No. 2 Raul Reyes and 25 other people, including an Ecuadorian citizen and four Mexican college students.

Venezuela joined ally Ecuador in breaking relations with Bogota and both countries moved extra troops to their respective borders with Colombia.

Even so, he has reacted angrily to Colombian claims that documents allegedly found on Reyes’ computer showed that Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa were supporting the FARC, charges vehemently denied by both leaders.

While Bogota and Quito remain at odds, Uribe and Chavez seem anxious to preserve amicable ties between Colombia and Venezuela, whose bilateral trade amounted to $5 billion last year.

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