Los Angeles Times
February 28, 2008
Venezuela helped facilitate the release of the four former legislators held by rebels.
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- After six years of captivity at the hands of leftist rebels, four Colombian hostages gained their freedom in a jungle clearing Wednesday after captors turned them over to representatives of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Dressed in T-shirts and jungle boots and appearing reasonably healthy, ex-legislators Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltran, Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Eduardo Gechem met a helicopter-borne delegation that included the Venezuelan interior minister and a Colombian senator.
Venezuelan state television showed them as they were escorted to the meeting point in the Colombian jungle by a dozen guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who were wearing fatigues and carrying carbines. Planned for nearly a month, the release took place in the state of Guaviare, where on Jan. 10 the FARC released two female hostages, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez.
"Thank you for bring me backing to life," said a tearful Polanco, 47, as one of her captors handed her several bunches of flowers.
"I'll leave one of these on the tomb of my husband and the others to my children. It's all that I can bring them from the jungle."
The four ex-legislators were then given medical exams and flown in helicopters to the western Venezuelan army base of Santo Domingo. There they boarded a small jet and proceeded to Caracas' Maiquetia airport, where they were met by family members. Then they went to the Miraflores presidential palace for a meeting with Chavez.
All four had been held six years or more.
The rebels are thought to be holding another 40 political prisoners they hope to exchange for comrades in government jails.
An additional 700 are being held for ransom, according to advocacy groups for victims and their families.
The FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, professes a communist ideology but supports its activities by drug trafficking and kidnapping, Colombian and U.S. government officials say.
Founded in the mid-1960s, the group reached its height of power several years ago and has seen its ranks and territory shrink since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002.
Among those still being held are three U.S. defense contractor employees, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, all imprisoned since their light aircraft was shot down in Colombia's Caqueta state in February 2003.
Rumors of an alleged deal to secure the release of the Americans and another high-profile captive, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, have circulated for weeks. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made the release of Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian-French citizenship, a high priority.
But the FARC announced this week that there would be no more releases unless the Colombian government agreed to its demand that a demilitarized zone be created in central Colombia where all remaining hostages could be exchanged for hundreds of their comrades in government jails.
Gechem told a reporter in Venezuela on Wednesday that Betancourt was in "extremely poor health."
The Colombian president has repeatedly refused to agree to the demilitarized zone as a precondition of an exchange, saying a similar gesture by his predecessor led to no peace agreement.
But as he did last month, Uribe agreed to halt all military action in the area for several hours to facilitate the release. He also agreed to allow Chavez government officials to receive the hostages in Colombian territory, a precondition of the FARC, which sees Chavez as sympathetic to its cause and which is seeking to boost his humanitarian standing, political analysts have said.
In a televised address, Uribe thanked Chavez for his help in securing the releases, which he called a "moment of happiness for all Colombian people." Uribe said Colombia was "a forgiving people" and was ready to talk peace with the FARC, but he offered no new terms.
Although each hostage can tell a tale of extreme hardship, deprivation and cruelty, Polanco's case is among the most tragic.
She and her two sons, then 20 and 18, were kidnapped by a team of FARC commandos who stormed their apartment building in Neiva.
Her sons were released in 2004 after her husband, former Huila state governor and then senator Jaime Lozada, paid a ransom.
He was killed in 2005 after rebels stopped his car on a rural road after he left a political meeting near Neiva.
Gechem, also a former Huila governor and legislator, was another victim of a spectacular kidnapping.
Four FARC members sneaked aboard a commuter aircraft on which Gechem was a passenger flying from Bogota to Neiva in 2002 and forced it to land on a deserted roadway, where he was then kidnapped.
Perez was a senator when kidnapped in 2001, after having served as governor of Narino state.
Beltran was a national deputy when he was seized in August 2001.