January 09, 2008
BARINAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez said Saturday that he has taken ''the first steps'' toward the release of three ailing hostages held by Colombian rebels for more than six years.
''We have already made contact'' with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Chávez told reporters in the southeastern city of Bariñas. ``The first steps on this path have been taken.''
Chávez urged ''calm and patience,'' saying ''there's no time limit'' for the release of Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Pérez and Orlando Beltrán, who were kidnapped in 2001. Holding up a letter from rebel leader Manuel Marulanda, Chávez said he was maintaining contact with the rebel leadership.
Chávez met later with relatives of the hostages, who turned to the Venezuelan leader for help. Venezuelan state television broadcast live images of the president speaking to the families at the state governor's office in Bariñas.
''The information we have is that they are in good condition,'' Chávez said.
Pérez's wife Angela told reporters after the meeting that ``we don't know the exact date of the release. That point wasn't clarified.''
His son Sergio earlier expressed optimism: ``We are hoping that everything will turn out the best way possible.''
The force known as the FARC -- Colombia's largest rebel group -- announced plans to release the captives in a communique on Jan. 31, saying its decision stemmed from efforts by Chávez and ''other friendly governments'' to seek a solution to Colombia's decades-long armed conflict.
Chávez -- who describes himself as a ''revolutionary'' -- has hailed the FARC's announcement as a demonstration the guerrillas are willing to negotiate an exchange of other hostages for imprisoned rebels. The FARC wants to exchange more than 40 high-value hostages -- including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors -- for hundreds of imprisoned rebels.
The government of Colombia's U.S.-backed president, Alvaro Uribe, has also welcomed the FARC's gesture, announcing that Colombian officials would cooperate with Venezuela to facilitate the release.
Chávez again urged Colombia to consider releasing jailed rebels as part of a complete swap.
''It's important that we continue until there are no more people in this situation, not in the Colombian jungles, and hopefully not in Colombian jails,'' Chávez said.
Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba, who helped Chávez facilitate the Jan. 10 release of two other high-profile hostages held by the FARC, thanked the Venezuelan leader for his help.
''We are going to advance in this peace process, and we owe it to you,'' said Córdoba, addressing Chávez.