November 16, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he met with a top leader of Colombia's second-largest rebel group as he seeks to help revive peace negotiations between the guerrillas and Colombia's government.
"We sat down here with the No. 2 chief of the ELN, Antonio Garcia," Chavez said Friday, referring to the National Liberation Army. Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo also attended the talks at the presidential palace Thursday night, he said.
Chavez didn't reveal details of what he'd discussed with the ELN leader, but said he also spoke earlier Thursday with the rebel group's chief, Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, known by the nom-de-guerre "Gabino." It was unclear if they met in person or spoke by phone.
The talks came as Chavez also tries to negotiate a swap of imprisoned rebels for hostages held by Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Among the dozens of captives are French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans.
Chavez met with a FARC representative last week in Caracas, and will visit Paris on Tuesday for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Venezuela's socialist president is stepping squarely into Colombia's long-running conflict, mediating with support from the Colombian government. He has said he hopes the FARC will soon give proof that Betancourt and other hostages are alive.
"We are going with good expectations, in this case to Paris to talk with President Sarkozy," Chavez said in an interview with state television on Friday. He said he was leaving shortly for an OPEC summit in Saudi Arabia, and would travel on to Iran, France and Portugal next week.
Chavez has emerged as a negotiator acceptable to both sides in Colombia's long-running conflict. FARC rebels express an affinity with his leftist ideals, while he has cordial ties with U.S.-allied Colombian President Alvaro Uribe despite deep ideological differences.
The ELN has previously held talks with the Colombian government in Cuba, but those negotiations stalled.