BOGOTÁ - Colombia's cancellation of the Venezuelan president's mediation with leftist rebels threw into disarray hopes for a prisoner swap that would free three US military contractors and a former presidential candidate.
The decision, announced late Wednesday, took Colombians by surprise but followed increasingly tense exchanges between Hugo Chávez and this country's conservative president, Álvaro Uribe.
It also prompted an immediate appeal yesterday from France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, not to end the go-between role Chávez assumed in August.
Among the 45 hostages with lives in the balance is Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen seized in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency.
Hugo Chávez defied Uribe by directly contacting Colombia's army chief Wednesday to discuss the hostages, Uribe's spokesman said in a hastily called late-night appearance.
The official, César Mauricio Velásquez, read a curt statement that also ended the mediation role of a leftist Colombian senator, Piedad Córdoba. The lawmaker had called the army chief, General Mario Montoya, and passed the phone to Chávez.
There was no immediate comment yesterday from Uribe or Chávez. But Venezuela issued a statement expressing frustration, calling Colombia's decision regrettable and expressing a desire to continue offering its "humble services in honor of life and peace."
In France, a spokesman for Sarkozy, whom Chávez visited in Paris earlier in the week to discuss the case, appealed to Uribe to reconsider.