February 28, 2008
The FARC freed four hostages -- the second release in six weeks -- but the rebels said they will end the release of captives unless the Colombian government accepts its negotiation terms.
CARACAS -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez basked in praise after the release of four Colombians held hostage by guerrillas on Wednesday, but no more kidnapping victims appear likely to win freedom anytime soon.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, released a communiqué Wednesday saying it would make no more unilateral releases until Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accepts its negotiating terms -- terms Uribe has rejected.
Only hours after the FARC released them in a jungle clearing in southern Colombia, the three men and one woman -- all former lawmakers kidnapped at least six years earlier -- were ferried by Venezuelan authorities to an emotional reunion with their families and then Chávez in Caracas.
''I spent seven years in inhumane conditions. I don't know how I survived,'' former Sen. Luis Eladio Pérez said upon arrival at Maiquetía International Airport, near Caracas.
''I am so happy,'' Gloria Polanco, a former congresswoman, told a Venezuelan government cameraman in the jungle upon her release. ``I want to offer thanks to President Chávez for this humanitarian gesture.''
''You've saved us practically from death,'' said former Rep. Orlando Beltrán, also thanking Chávez before reaching Caracas.
The three and former Sen. Jorge Eduardo Géchem embraced family members at the Caracas airport, trying to hold back tears.
Chávez greeted the kidnap victims at the Miraflores Presidential Palace with military honors and warm hugs in images carried live on six Venezuelan TV stations. He did not make any public remarks.
But the day's happiness was undercut by the announcement by the FARC that this unilateral release of hostages to Chávez, its second in six weeks, would be its last unless Uribe meets its terms.
The guerrillas want Uribe to demilitarize an area of southern Colombian where the FARC and the government can negotiate the release of up to 40 more high-profile kidnap victims in exchange for about 500 guerrillas in Colombian prisons.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos reiterated Wednesday that Uribe will not accept those terms. A previous demilitarized zone turned into a haven for FARC abuses and was canceled by then-President Andrés Pastrana when Géchem was kidnapped.
''It looks bleak right now for the release of any other hostages,'' said Adam Isacson, who closely follows Colombian affairs for the Center for International Study in Washington. ``There are a whole host of unresolved issues. And you can't have a conversation that will get [the two sides] to the table without a mediator. Chávez is unacceptable to the Colombian government. Uribe has proposed the Catholic Church, but the FARC says the church is unacceptable.''
The FARC is holding about 700 Colombians, but the guerrillas are seeking ransom for most of them.
Rafael Nieto, a former vice minister of internal security under Uribe, divided the other 40 into four categories.
• There are three former politicians, who Nieto said are the most likely to be freed should the FARC eventually resume its unilateral releases.
• There are three U.S. defense contractors captured when their airplane crashed during an anti-drug mission. Nieto said an exchange was theoretically possible for FARC guerrillas imprisoned by the U.S. government on drug charges.
• The third group consists of more than 30 Colombian soldiers and policemen who would be released only in exchange for jailed FARC members, Nieto said.
• The fourth group has only one person, the remaining prize hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen. The French government has been pushing for her release.
''She is very sick,'' Pérez said Wednesday night.
Nieto, speaking by telephone from Bogotá, noted another complicating factor: More than 1,000 of the guerrillas held by Colombian authorities have said they don't want to be returned to the FARC.
The FARC started fighting the Colombian government about 40 years ago with a Marxist ideology but has been financing its activities recently by trafficking cocaine and kidnapping for ransom.
Uribe has launched powerful military offensives, funded in part by U.S. aid, that have put the FARC on the defensive, reducing its numbers and shrinking the jungle area where its fighters operate.
Wednesday's hostage release and one six weeks ago of former congresswoman Consuelo González and Betancourt aide Clara Rojas put new focus on the plight of the hostages. Chávez followed up that release by calling on foreign governments to stop branding the FARC as terrorists and recognize them as a legitimate fighting force.
''The FARC is trying to gain international legitimacy,'' said former Colombian Sen. Rafael Pardo.
Wednesday's events followed much of the same script as when the FARC released González and Rojas.
As before, Chávez dispatched his justice minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba to collect the kidnap victims. They flew in Venezuelan helicopters, accompanied by Red Cross representatives and doctors.
FARC officials had said they were freeing the four former lawmakers as a humanitarian gesture because they were suffering health problems. Pérez said he suffered a heart attack while in captivity and had three diabetic attacks that left him in a coma.
The four hostages exchanged handshakes and hugs with their former captors as they bid them goodbye in the jungle. Rodríguez Chacín warmly hugged the leader of the guerrilla band.
Eduardo Beltrán, the brother of Orlando Beltrán, said his family had received only three signs of life during the captivity: a letter soon after his kidnapping, images from a 2003 video and a letter brought by González.
Beltrán, 39, a lawyer, praised Chávez for his role and told The Miami Herald that he wasn't bitter at the FARC for the kidnapping.
''We need to find a way to live together peacefully. It's not worth holding onto anger and rancor,'' Beltrán said.