September 27, 2007
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said Wednesday he was grateful that Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is seeking to broker a deal for the release of hostages in Colombia, but he was cautious about raising hopes for the negotiations.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Uribe stressed that a meeting expected next month between Chávez and rebel leaders would be only the latest of many efforts to free hostages held in Colombia, including three Americans. He was steadfast in refusing key rebel demands, including a New York City-sized demilitarized zone and the release of two Colombian rebels imprisoned in the U.S.
''It's difficult because everyone wants the release of hostages,'' said Uribe, who was in New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. ``I hope the rebels free the hostages at President Chávez's request. But we will express all of our gratitude to President Chávez ... whether or not the effort proves successful.''
Families of the kidnapped are optimistic Chávez could sway the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, because of the rebels' affinity for his leftist ideals. The Venezuelan president met Tuesday with relatives of three American defense contractors held by the FARC and the mother of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
''We're the closest we've ever been to getting our son back,'' Lynne Stansell, mother of U.S. hostage Keith Stansell, said in Bogotá on Wednesday. ``Chávez told us he was doing this as a humanitarian gesture, not for political reasons.''
Chávez faces difficult negotiations.
On Tuesday, he hinted at the idea of a U.S. presidential pardon for a FARC fighter convicted in a U.S. court of exporting cocaine and a second, higher-ranking rebel convicted of conspiracy in the seizure of the three American contractors after their plane crashed on a surveillance mission.
Uribe has ruled out including the two in any prisoner swap.
He emphasized that his government has made several concessions, including releasing a high-ranking rebel in June at the request of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made securing Betancourt's freedom a priority. A day after being freed, however, Rodrigo Granda said the FARC would only release hostages if government troops withdraw from a large swath of western Colombia.
Chávez's mediation ''is not the first effort to secure the release of hostages. We have made many in the last five years,'' said Uribe, who discussed the hostage situation with Sarkozy this week and was to meet Thursday with relatives of Stansell and the two other U.S. captives, Marc Gonsalves, who is from the Florida Keys, and Tom Howes.
Uribe was reticent when asked if the negotiations between Chávez and the FARC might lead to a wider peace process with the rebels, who have been fighting the government for more than four decades. He insisted that his hard-line security policies have significantly reduced murders and kidnappings.
''For us, the military path is just as valid as the path of negotiation,'' Uribe said. 'We will not allow anything to break our will to pursue a firm policy of saying, `No more terrorism.' ''
Success by Chávez in mediating a humanitarian swap could expand his influence. The United States accuses Chávez of being a threat to democracy, but many Latin Americans praise him for using Venezuela's oil wealth to help the region's poor.
Since Uribe and Chávez announced the mediation effort last month, Washington has been cautiously supportive. At the U.N. earlier this week, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns sidestepped a question about Chávez's role. But the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, said in Bogotá last week that ''we look upon favorably the participation of any leader, public servant, politician or important person of any country in the world'' who might help secure the hostages' release.
Uribe, a strong U.S. ally who has cordial ties with neighboring Venezuela, said he was not concerned that Chávez would get the credit for any release of prisoners.
''I don't make those calculations,'' he said. ``What motivates me to make decisions -- to support the efforts of President Chávez -- is the suffering of kidnap victims, the grief of the families.''