June 14, 2008
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Saturday welcomed a call by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for FARC rebels to free their hostages as a step towards peace negotiations to end Latin America's oldest insurgency.
Ties between Venezuela and Colombia have been tense since March when Colombian troops killed a top FARC commander in a camp inside Ecuador. Colombia said laptops found at the camp show Chavez's backing of the rebels, a charge he rejects.
The Venezuelan leader, who had previously called for more recognition for the Marxist guerrillas, last week urged the FARC to unconditionally release their hostages in an apparent reversal of his political support for the rebels.
"I want to reiterate our thanks to President Hugo Chavez for his recent comments that help Colombia win a definite peace. I believe they were positive comments," Uribe said at a community town hall meeting.
Uribe said he would meet soon with Chavez as the two governments work to repair ties. Washington ally Uribe and left-winger Chavez are on opposites of the political spectrum but their countries share about $6 billion in trade each year.
A Colombian government source said the meeting would likely take place in Venezuela before July 15 though details were still being hammered out.
Violence from Colombia's conflict has ebbed as Uribe's U.S.-backed military drove back the FARC -- Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The rebels have lost three top commanders this year and government rewards are triggering desertions.
The loss of political support from Chavez could pressure the guerrillas to start talks over freeing their hostages held for years in jungle camps, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors.
A self-styled socialist, Chavez is one of region's fiercest critics of U.S. policies in Latin America while Uribe is the White House's most loyal partner who receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight leftist guerrillas.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Anthony Boadle)