February 28, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Four hostages freed by Colombian rebels after six years in captivity appealed to President Hugo Chavez to press for the freedom of the remaining captives, including three Americans.
It was the second such release this year by the leftist rebels, who are seeking to put pressure on Colombia's U.S.-allied government and persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist groups.
The Venezuelan president - who coordinated the release - made a direct plea to the rebels' commander to urgently consider the health situation of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, one of the most high-profile of those still in captivity.
On Wednesday, the four ex-lawmakers were reunited with relatives amid tears, hugs and grasped flowers at Caracas' international airport.
Then Chavez welcomed them to the presidential palace, where hostage Gloria Polanco made a passionate plea for the Venezuelan leader to help win the release of Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who has become a cause celebre in Europe.
"As a woman and a mother, I ask from my heart here in front of everyone that you fight to get Ingrid free as soon as possible," Polanco implored. "She is very ill, president, very ill. She has recurrent hepatitis B and is near the end."
Chavez turned to TV cameras recording the meeting and asked the rebel leader Manuel Marulanda, "from my heart to change Ingrid's location. Move her to a base closer to you, while we continue working to pave the way for her definitive release." Chavez called Betancourt's case "urgent."
He also pledged "to continue doing all we can to liberate the very last" of the hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, another released hostage, later said that Betancourt's treatment had been "merciless."
In France, Betancourt's daughter said she was "extremely anxious" about her mother's condition.
"It's extremely worrying, and I know that time is really of the essence for us. Mom is alive, but I don't know for how long, and I know we have to get her out of there as soon as possible," Melanie Delloye told RTL radio.
The FARC has proposed trading some 40 high-value captives - including Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors - for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
But the Colombian government and the rebels remain far apart on the conditions for talks.
Perez said Thursday that rebels had confiscated letters by the three American hostages asking for help from President Bush and other leading U.S. politicians.
Before Perez parted ways on Feb. 4 with the Americans - Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell - they gave him letters they had written to Bush, to leading Democrats in Congress, to House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the leading presidential candidates. But he said rebels took the letters away in a search before freeing him and the others.
The FARC has been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, but has in recent years drawn wide reproach for its methods: It kidnaps civilians for ransom and funds itself largely through cocaine trafficking. Colombia's government says it holds more than 700 people, either for ransom or political reasons.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has tense relations with Chavez, thanked the socialist leader and called for the release of all hostages. He said Colombia is still in a fight "against terrorist actions" but is open to reconciliation.
Chavez said he hopes the hostage release will open the way for a peace process. His government dubbed Wednesday's mission "Operation Path to Peace."
Venezuela dispatched two helicopters to Colombia's southern jungles, where the rebels turned over the four captives in the same region where they released two others on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez. The operation was overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.