February 27, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Two Venezuelan helicopters left for Colombia Wednesday morning on a mission to pick up four hostages held by rebels for more than six years, the international Red Cross said.
The helicopters took off from the Venezuelan border town of Santo Domingo, said Yves Heller, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bogota.
The two helicopters bore Red Cross insignia and were headed for an airport in the southern Colombian town of San Jose de Guaviare, he said. From there, the helicopters are to take off again for an unidentified spot in the Colombian jungles for the hostage handover.
Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have pledged to free four former Colombian politicians, including Gloria Polanco, former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, and ex-congressmen Orlando Beltran and Jorge Gechem.
The rebels are to turn the hostages over to officials sent by President Hugo Chavez's government as they did last month with former captives Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, who were reunited with their families in Caracas.
The FARC have an ideological affinity for Chavez and have turned to the socialist leader to receive the hostages.
The rebels have proposed trading some 40 other high-value captives - including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors - for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
Aboard the helicopters Wednesday were Venezuelan Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin and Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, as well as four Red Cross representatives and doctors to treat the hostages.
Polanco is said to have suffered ailments including thyroid problems, while Gechem has heart, back and ulcer problems.
The Colombian government had given the Red Cross security guarantees to go forward with the mission, said Barbara Hintermann, head of operations in Colombia for the ICRC.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Toby Muse, in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.