Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez yesterday urged world governments to label Colombia's cocaine-funded Marxist guerrillas insurgents instead of terrorists, a day after rebels freed two women hostages.
Colombia's interior minister immediately denounced the call to meet a major rebel demand as "completely off-the-wall."
Chavez, who brokered the rare hostage release, said the rebel fighters, the FARC and ELN, "are not terrorist groups, they are armies, real armies that occupy space in Colombia."
Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe later issued a statement saying the insurgents are indeed terrorists who fund their operations with cocaine smuggling, recruit children and plant land mines in their effort to topple a democratically elected government.
The FARC and ELN use kidnapping as a weapon in their decades-long war on the state. Along with right-wing paramilitary, they are self-financed through involvement in the Andean nation's multibillion-dollar narcotics trade.
"I ask you (Uribe) that we start recognizing the FARC and the ELN as insurgent forces in Colombia and not terrorist groups, and I ask the same of the governments of this continent and the world," Chavez said in his annual state of the nation speech.
Led by the United States, which funds Uribe's counterinsurgency war and has military advisers in the country, many allies of Colombia consider both groups terrorists.
"Colombia's violent groups are terrorists because the only thing they have produced is displacement, pain, unemployment and poverty," Uribe's statement said.
On Thursday, Chavez was showered with praise by governments from Argentina to France after the FARC set free Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas, politicians they had held for years in secret jungle camps.
Uribe and Chavez have bickered for months over the leftist's role in mediating a swap of hostages for guerrillas imprisoned by the government.
Chavez is determined to help free more of the dozens of politicians, soldiers and police the FARC hold, and has offered to open a "peace camp" in Venezuela.
Uribe is wary of his socialist neighbor, who has good relations with the guerrillas and frequently invokes a brief period in the 19th century when the two nations were united as one.
The FARC is Latin America's oldest and largest guerrilla army. The ELN is Colombia's second-largest leftist rebel group. The rebels say they are fighting for greater equality in the Andean country.Reuse content