January 11, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez, emboldened by his success in a hostage release, took the side of leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia's decades-old civil conflict Friday, calling the guerrillas "true armies" who shouldn't be categorized as terrorists.
Colombia's U.S.-allied government, which has made eradicating the rebels a top priority, reacted with outrage. Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said Colombia "cannot accept a request of this sort."
Chavez's defense of the rebels thrust him deeper than ever into the thicket of Colombia's conflict. He said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army "are not terrorists, they are true armies ... They must be recognized."
FARC is the hemisphere's biggest rebel force with 14,000 fighters, mostly peasants it says are fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth. It funds itself mainly by drug trafficking, and the government says it holds some 750 hostages, either for ransom or political leverage.
"They are insurgent forces that have a political project," Chavez said in a marathon speech to lawmakers. "I say it even though someone could be bothered by it."
A spokesman for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe later read a statement that said FARC guerrillas are terrorists because they "kidnap, place bombs indiscriminately, recruit and murder children, murder pregnant women and the elderly, and use anti-personnel mines that have left thousands of innocent victims."
"All that they've produced for the country is forced displacement, pain, unemployment and poverty," said the spokesman, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, who did not mention Chavez by name.
Officials in Bogota were already upset that Venezuelan Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin appeared to express support for the rebels as he led the Chavez-brokered release of two long-held FARC hostages Thursday.
"We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort," Rodriguez told the rebels in a video made of the handover in a Colombian jungle clearing.
The European Union joined Washington in classifying FARC as a terrorist group in 2002, outlawing all economic support for the movement. Colombia's armed forces also have been criticized internationally for abuses of civilians.
FARC has repeatedly asked world governments to remove it from terrorist lists, and in echoing that call Friday, Chavez urged European and Latin American nations to resist what he called "U.S. pressure."
Uribe adviser Jose Obdulio Gaviria denounced the comments. "The FARC uses violence against democratic government and civil populations. In the canon of international law, that makes them a terrorist group," he said.
Chavez's critics in Bogota and Washington have long suspected he clandestinely supports FARC _ a charge he denies.
His involvement in Colombia's conflict deepened in August, when Uribe invited him to try to mediate a prisoner swap with the rebels. But Uribe called his Venezuelan counterpart off in November, accusing him of overstepping his authority.
Thursday's release of two Colombian women held for about six years was a nod to Chavez's intervention. After tearful reunions with relatives waiting in the Venezuelan capital, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez greeted Chavez with hugs and kisses.
The handover was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers.
It was also a major triumph for Chavez after a series of setbacks, including his first loss at the hands of Venezuelan voters, who last month rejected constitutional changes that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely.
Chavez said he hoped the success could be repeated for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and dozens of other captives, including three Americans. But he said that largely depends on Uribe.
During a news conference on Friday evening, Rojas described the FARC as "a criminal organization," condemning its kidnappings as "a total violation of human dignity."
The guerrillas have offered to trade 44 high-profile captives for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the U.S. But Uribe has refused to let Chavez meet with FARC leaders on Colombian soil.
In a statement published on a pro-rebel Web site, FARC said the release of the women demonstrated its "unquestionable willingness" to talk with the government about its remaining hostages.
But Velasquez, Uribe's spokesman, said the release of Gonzalez and Rojas "can't hide the horror of the kidnapping of which they were victims for so many years, nor can it obscure the torturous treatment by the FARC of members of the security forces and politicians kidnapped by them: They are chained day and night in cages, as the two newly freed persons have attested."
Gonzalez, a former congresswoman who was abducted in September 2001, said Friday that some of the hostages had to sleep, bathe and wash their clothes while chained by the neck.
In an interview with Caracol Radio, she said she had suffered bouts of malaria and leishmanisis, a parasitic disease, during long treks through the jungle.
She also described how her daily routine of sleeping on the ground and surviving on rice and beans was sometimes interrupted by air attacks mounted by the military. "When bombs are falling all around you, it's when you really understand the horror of war," she said.
Gonzalez said she spent her first night of freedom catching up with her family until 4 a.m. about what she missed in captivity _ including the death of her husband and the birth of a granddaughter. She said it was the first time she slept on a bed in six years.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.