THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Hostage rescue mission awaits go-ahead from Colombian rebels

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Reuters / December 30, 2007

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia - A Venezuelan mission to pick up three hostages held for years by Colombian rebels in jungle camps was delayed again yesterday because guerrilla leaders have not given the final go-ahead.

After weeks of promising to release two former politicians and the young son born to one of them in captivity, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has not yet revealed their location, Red Cross officials said.

Hugo Chávez, the leftist president of neighboring Venezuela, has led the rescue effort and initially hoped to have the hostages freed Thursday, but government sources said it would not happen until today at the earliest.

Chávez sent two helicopters into Colombia on Friday, but they remained grounded in the flat town of Villavicencio at the foot of the Andes mountains. The Red Cross, which is helping coordinate the rescue, said it needed exact directions and daylight to set out to look for the captives.

"The key part is the coordinates, and it is hard to say when we are going to get them," said Yves Heller, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia.

Foreign envoys sent to observe the rescue effort were set to fly to Villavicencio, close to a rebel stronghold, later yesterday.

They include former president Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and officials from France and Switzerland. American film director Oliver Stone was expected to join them.

Although wary of Chávez and his goal of uniting South America under socialism, Colombia's conservative government let him fly a Venezuelan aircraft painted with the colors of the Red Cross deep into its territory to collect the hostages.

Chávez, who is trying to get the location from the rebels, called for patience. He said poor communications from FARC jungle territory and bad weather were delaying the mission.

He had said earlier that Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas, and her son Emmanuel could be free within hours of the arrival of the helicopters. Emmanuel, whose father is a guerrilla fighter, was born in a rebel camp and is thought to be 4 years old. Rojas was captured in 2002 and Gonzalez in 2001.

President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia told Chávez last month to stay out of negotiations with the rebels, but Chávez opened informal talks and struck a deal to free the three captives.

Guerrilla leaders say they will turn the hostages over only to Chávez or someone designated by him.

Villavicencio, in central Colombia, is a gateway to the country's southern jungles, where the FARC controls wide areas used to produce the cocaine that funds its insurgency.

Roadblocks dotted the area, with police checking identity papers as the local airport swarmed with journalists waiting for the operation to begin.

The release could help pave the way for freeing other rebel-held captives, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American antidrug contractors, in exchange for jailed guerrillas.

It would also give Chávez a political victory just weeks after he lost a referendum vote that would have allowed him to run for reelection indefinitely and given him powers to accelerate his socialist revolution in Venezuela.

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