The New York Times
January 11, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — Colombian guerrillas freed two politically prominent hostages on Thursday, handing them over to emissaries of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in a breakthrough in mediation efforts with Latin America’s largest rebel group.
It was a day of triumph for Mr. Chávez, who had suffered a stinging political defeat in a referendum in December to overhaul Venezuela’s Constitution.
The captives, two women who had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were radiant, smiling and apparently healthy as they emerged from the thick jungle in Guaviare, in southern Colombia, accompanied by about a half dozen guerrillas.
The operation, coordinated by Mr. Chávez, followed weeks of mishaps in which the 3-year-old son of one of the captives, Clara Rojas, was found to be living in foster care in Bogotá and not with the guerrillas, as they had indicated. The rebels had agreed in December to free Ms. Rojas, 44, a Colombian politician kidnapped in 2002, along with her son, Emmanuel, and Consuelo González de Perdomo, 57, a former Colombian lawmaker abducted in 2001.
“Thank you, president,” Ms. Perdomo said into a camera as Mr. Chávez and other television viewers across the region witnessed her release on Telesur, the news network backed by his government. “Do not give up.”
The two women smiled in front of the cameras as they said goodbye to their captors, dressed in fatigues and carrying assault rifles. The captives kissed the female guerrillas and shook hands with the men. The rebels then marched back into the jungle.
Then Venezuelan aircraft transported them here for a reunion with family members. Mr. Chávez used his government’s media apparatus to celebrate the release of the two women, broadcasting the meetings with family members live on state television.
His emissary in the rescue mission, Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, dressed in red, the color of Mr. Chávez’s political movement, kept the president briefed by satellite phone, images on state television here showed.
“Venezuela will continue opening the way for peace in Colombia,” Mr. Chávez told reporters here.
Mr. Chávez, who has been under criticism for neglecting a surge in kidnappings and homicides, including abductions of Venezuelans by Colombian guerrillas, welcomed the women to the presidential palace. They appeared together on television as a band played the anthems of Venezuela and Colombia.
The release of the two women follows years of hardship in the jungle. Two years ago, while Ms. Perdomo was in captivity, her husband, Jairo Perdomo, died of a heart attack. Ms. Rojas, a lawyer and former aide to another captive, the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, gave birth in captivity three years ago, only to be separated from her son, who was presumably fathered by a rebel.
In comments broadcast on Colombian radio, Ms. Rojas said the rebels took her son away when he was 8 months old. “The moment of birth was difficult,” she said. “They did a Caesarean, and I was in recuperation for 40 days without moving, without being able to get out of bed.” She confirmed reports that Emmanuel’s arm was broken in childbirth.
Political tension between Venezuela and Colombia has intensified since President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia withdrew his support in November for Mr. Chávez’s mediation efforts. The rebel group, in negotiating for political captives, is apparently trying to secure the release of hundreds of guerrillas jailed in Colombia as well as two members extradited to the United States.
Colombia’s government, which had expressed disdain for the group’s actions during Mr. Chávez’s diplomacy with the rebels, approved the latest rescue mission, temporarily suspending military operations in the area where the release took place.
In a nationally televised address Thursday night, Mr. Uribe recognized Mr. Chávez’s mediating role but slowly read the names of hostages still held by the rebel group in a reminder that Colombia remains at war.
The release of the two hostages raises hopes for more than 40 other political captives of the group, some held for nearly a decade, including three American military contractors abducted in 2003 when their plane went down. Ms. Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, was captured with Ms. Rojas.
Colombian officials obtained videos, photographs and letters in November showing that more than 15 of the hostages, including Ms. Betancourt and the three Americans, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, were still alive recently.
The group, at war with Colombia’s government since the 1960s, is believed to hold about 700 other captives for ransom instead of political demands. The Marxist-inspired insurgency, which finances itself through abductions and cocaine trafficking, found in Mr. Chávez someone willing to grant them a rare degree of respect in negotiations.
“The FARC used kidnapping, a horrible crime in violation of international law, to gain a measure of political recognition,” said Adam Isacson, who follows Colombia’s war for the Center for International Policy, a research organization in Washington.
Although Mr. Uribe, Colombia’s president, is the Bush administration’s closest ally in South America, American officials grudgingly acknowledged Mr. Chávez’s mediating role. “We welcome the release of these two hostages,” Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington.
“We are also appreciative of the leadership of President Uribe in terms of trying to secure the release of these hostages,” he said, “and we welcome the good offices of any individuals who can help secure that, in cooperation with the Colombian government.”