September 26, 2007
(AP) -- President Hugo Chávez said Tuesday that he hopes his archenemy, President Bush, plays a helpful role as the Venezuelan leader seeks to broker a deal for Colombian rebels to free hostages, including three Americans.
Chavez mentioned the possibility of Bush's involvement as he met with relatives of three U.S. defense contractors. He pledged to do everything in his power to secure the hostages' release through a swap of hostages for guerrilla prisoners in Colombian jails.
''There are no political colors or ideologies here. President Bush, I hope he can help us,'' Chávez said, noting that Bush is to meet soon with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has also been playing a role.
''I hope he is willing to help us,'' Chavez said, adding to reporters later: ``Why not? . . . On this we could agree with President Bush.''
The Venezuelan leader noted that Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is demanding that two Colombian rebels imprisoned in the United States be included in any prisoner swap -- an idea Uribe opposes.
''There is a tough point there,'' Chávez said.
FARC rebel commander Nayibe ''Sonia'' Rojas was convicted this year by a U.S. court of exporting cocaine, and another, Ricardo Palmera -- known by the nom de guerre Simon Trinidad -- is awaiting trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
Chávez said that while respecting legal channels, ''I as president know that heads of state have powers'' -- suggesting the possibility of a U.S. pardon.
The socialist president, who captured world attention last year when he called Bush ''the devil'' in a speech to the United Nations, met with the Americans at the presidential palace in Caracas.
In an emotional meeting that ended with a group prayer, the relatives of hostages Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes thanked Chavez for seeking to mediate their freedom. The three have been held by Colombia's rebels since their plane crashed in the southern jungles during a surveillance mission in February 2003.
''I guarantee that we will never stop fighting for this,'' said Chávez, who took the 4-year-old son of one hostage in his arms.
Stansell's 15-year-old son Kyle of Sarasota embraced Chávez and thanked him. ''You will see your father,'' Chávez told him. ``I look at you, and I see my own son.''
Howes' 10-year-old son Tommy, wearing a T-shirt given to him by Chávez, said he is glad ``there's a possibility of getting my dad back.''
Gonsalves' father, George Gonsalves, of Hebron, Conn., said afterward that he has high hopes in Chávez.
''He seems like the individual that can make it happen,'' said Gonsalves, who was accompanied by Stansell's parents, Gene and Lynne Stansell, and Howes' wife, Mariana.
Chávez has emerged as a potential dealmaker in part because the rebels express an affinity for his leftist ideals and because he also has cordial ties with Uribe despite deep ideological differences.
The Americans were joined at the meeting by the mother of another FARC hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
The three Northrop Grumman Corp. contractors are among about 45 prominent hostages who, if the two sides manage to reach a deal, could be exchanged for rebel prisoners in Colombian jails.
Chávez faces difficult negotiations between rebels who demand a New York City-size demilitarized zone and a Colombian president who says he will not cede territory.
Speaking at the United Nations Tuesday, Uribe said he opposes freeing two Colombian rebels imprisoned in the United States as part of any prisoner swap.
''Let them return once they've served their sentences,'' Uribe said.