Chavez launches hostage handover

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The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has began a delicate operation to pluck three hostages from rebel-held areas of the Colombian jungle.

Mr Chavez is calling the mission "Operation Emmanuel," after the toddler believed to be the son of hostage Clara Rojas and a guerrilla fighter. "The logistics are prepared," he said. "Let's be patient and ask God to help us and have faith that everything is going to turn out well."

By special arrangement with Colombia's US-allied government, Venezuela is sending two Russian-made MI-17 helicopters to unidentified spots to pick up the former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Ms Rojas and the boy, who is thought to be three.

Aboard the helicopters will be international observers from France and five Latin American countries, inlcuding the former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, Colombia's leading peace negotiator and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The handover, expected over the weekend, is shrouded in secrecy and shaped by the nature of Colombia's guerrilla war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, has been fighting for more than four decades, and its guerrillas are dispersed in remote camps in the jungles and countryside.

For security reasons, Mr Chavez said, the rebels have demanded that Venezuelan pilots not be told where they will fly ahead of time. Also, there may be multiple potential rendezvous points, for security reasons.

Ms Rojas, an aide to the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped with the French-Colombian politician nearly six years ago. The release has raised hopes for relatives of Ms Betancourt and dozens of other high-profile hostages, including three American defence contractors.

Relatives of the three hostages have arrived in Venezuela, hoping the jungle handover Mr Chavez plans will work. AP