Hostages released by Colombian rebels arrive in Venezuela

February 29th, 2008 - 12:35 am ICT by admin  

DPA
Caracas/Bogota, Feb 28 (DPA) Four former Colombian legislators have been freed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and handed over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A mission sponsored by the Venezuelan government was successful in retrieving Wednesday former legislators Jorge Gechem, Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Perez and Orlando Beltran - all kidnapped in 2001-02 - from the jungle in southern Colombia. The released hostages later travelled to Venezuela.

The television channel Telesur showed footage in the jungle of the handover of the hostages, dressed in sports clothes and visibly tired after a long trek, amid hugs and weeping.

“I am happy, joyful, radiant. I did not know whether I would get back alive to see my three children,” said a tearful Polanco.

The only one of the four who belonged to a party that supports the current Colombian government, she received a bouquet of flowers from Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Cordoba. Polanco was the most talkative in the group.

Gechem - whose kidnapping in February 2002 led to the break-up of peace talks between FARC and the government of then-president Andres Pastrana - looked particularly emaciated, thanking the Venezuelan government in a weak voice. He requires urgent medical treatment, after suffering five pre-strokes and a frequently bleeding stomach ulcer.

Beltran and Perez expressed gratitude for their release and described the Colombian conflict as “inhuman” and the practice of kidnappings as “torture in the jungle”.

“In the name of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and of the People’s Army, we hand over these four hostages that the secretariat had promised (Venezuelan) President Hugo Chavez and (Colombian) Senator Piedad Cordoba,” the rebels’ leader said.

FARC had vowed to release the four hostages without preconditions, and there was great concern in Colombia as to their health.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said he was receiving the four “comrades” as a “humanitarian” move.

“We are sure it is one more step in the long road to achieve peace in Colombia, which is what we all long for,” he said.

Two helicopters had taken off earlier Wednesday from Santo Domingo and landed two hours later in the town of San Jose del Guaviare in the Colombian jungle. The team was met at the airport by Colombian High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo before leaving for the jungle to find the hostages at a location whose coordinates had been given to Rodriguez Chacin.

Four Red Cross delegates and two Venezuelan doctors were part of the delegation with Rodriguez Chacin and Senator Cordoba.

After the release of the hostages, members waited to allow the rebels accompanying the hostages to return to the jungle, before flying back to Santo Domingo. In the Venezuelan city, they boarded an airplane to travel to Caracas, where their families were waiting at Maiquetia airport.

The Colombian government authorised the mission and suspended military operations from the air in a vast area in central and southern Colombia.

The left-wing populist Chavez has led several efforts to mediate toward a prisoner exchange, leading to both rapprochements and bitter disagreements with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Chavez has even suggested that the international community should regard FARC as a combatant, instead of listing the guerrillas with terrorist groups.

FARC vowed Wednesday to make no more unilateral releases and reiterated a long-standing demand for the demilitarisation of an area in the southwestern Colombian province of Valle del Cauca, as a first step toward the exchange of about 40 high-value hostages for at least 500 imprisoned rebels.

The Colombian government has so far refused to grant the demilitarisation and has instead proposed a “meeting zone” with no weapons where both parties could talk in the presence of representatives from the international community.

In January, FARC released former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former legislator Consuelo Gonzalez, in another move sponsored by Venezuela.

DPA

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