January 11, 2008
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez defended Colombia's leftist rebels on Friday, urging the international community to remove them from lists of terrorist groups a day after securing the release of two women held hostage by the insurgents.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army ''are not terrorists, they are true armies. . . . They must be recognized,'' Chávez said.
''They are insurgent forces that have a political project,'' he told lawmakers. ``I say it even though someone could be bothered by it.''
The FARC -- Colombia's largest guerrilla group -- has repeatedly asked world governments to remove it from their lists of foreign terrorist organizations. Chávez echoed that call, urging European and Latin American nations to resist what he called ``U.S. pressure.''
The European Union joined Washington in classifying FARC as a terrorist group in 2002, outlawing all economic support to the guerrilla group, which is accused of large-scale drug trafficking, kidnapping and attacks on civilians.
The FARC rebels traditionally have found support among leftists in Europe, and several pro-FARC websites are hosted there.
Chávez, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who is leading a political movement named after South America's 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolívar, also described the political leanings of Colombia's guerrillas as ``Bolivarian.''
The Venezuelan leader's strong statements are likely to agitate Colombia's U.S.-allied president, Alvaro Uribe, while raising concerns in Washington.
Chávez, meanwhile, basked in praise for winning the release of two women who were held for about six years by the FARC. Lawmakers gave a standing ovation as Chávez arrived to the National Assembly to make his annual address.
The two Colombians, Clara Rojas and Consuelo González, were reunited Thursday with relatives who waited for them in Caracas. After tearful reunions, they met Chávez, who soaked up the attention, holding González's 2-year-old granddaughter in his arms.
Chávez said he hoped the successful mission could be repeated for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and dozens of other captives held by the FARC. But, he said, that largely depends on Uribe.
The hand-over was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers. And it was a major victory for Chávez, whose leftist politics helped gain the trust of the rebels.
The FARC, in a statement published on a pro-rebel website, said the unilateral release demonstrated the group's ''unquestionable willingness'' to engage the government in talks over the remaining hostages.
Rojas was managing Betancourt's bid for the presidency in February 2002 when the two were kidnapped on the campaign trail. She gave birth in captivity to a boy fathered by one of the guerrillas.
Chávez said the mission demonstrated ''there are possibilities'' of securing the release of other FARC hostages, including three American defense contractors.
Chávez suggested Colombia has wrongly seen military strikes as the way out of the conflict, and said Uribe ``must be called to rectify.''
''President, use me. I'm at your service,'' he said, urging Uribe to let him meet FARC commander Manuel Marulanda for talks.
Uribe has refused to give approval for Chávez to meet with FARC leaders on Colombian soil.
But the hostage hand-over increases pressure on Uribe to make concessions for the release of 44 other high-profile captives. The guerrillas have offered to trade those hostages for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the United States.