Chavez's plan to retrieve Farc hostages nears completion

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The Independent US

Venezuela was attempting to organise an air convoy for the handover of three hostages held in Colombia by Marxist rebels yesterday, but the Red Cross said logistical difficulties meant it could take days to complete.

Colombia has given permission for Venezuelan planes and helicopters marked with the Red Cross symbol to land in the country to pick up two Colombian politicians held for a year, and a young child born to one of them in captivity.

They are held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, which is fighting a 40-year-old insurgency funded over the past 20 years by cocaine.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's left-wing leader and the only person authorised by the rebels to receive the hostages, said his handover plan would only take hours to organise but the International Committee of the Red Cross disagreed.

"We have gotten the green light from the Farc to take part in this operation," said Yves Heller, the Red Cross spokesman in Colombia. Now we are working on the logistics. It's hard to tell when the hostage release will take place."

Early this month, the Farc said that it would hand the three captives over to Mr Chavez or someone designated by him.

The hostages are Clara Rojas, captured during her 2002 vice-presidential campaign, the former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez, snatched the year before, and Ms Rojas's three- or four-year-old son Emmanuel, fathered by one of her captors. Emmanuel has come to symbolise the young victims of a war in which thousands of people are killed or displaced every year as militias fight over cocaine-producing land.

His name and the other details of his life under guard in the wilderness were revealed this year by a former police officer who escaped the rebels after eight years in captivity, sometimes in the same camps as Ms Rojas and her son.

Mr Chavez will send an air convoy to the central Colombian town of Villavicencio at the foot of the Andes mountains, then dispatch helicopters to a still unknown meeting point to pick up the three. They will then go to Venezuela.

The Red Cross is sending delegates to Venezuela to take off with the convoy and international figures, including former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, will fly to Colombia to guarantee the handover.

The Conservative Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe last month told President Chavez to stay out of hostage negotiations with the guerrillas but the president kept talking with the Farc.

The hostages' liberation could help set the stage for an exchange of other longtime captives, including the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three US anti-drug contractors, for guerrillas held in Colombian jails.

The Farc has been pressured by Mr Uribe's US-backed military policies but it still controls wide rural areas and holds about 750 hostages for ransom and political leverage. Reuters

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