Colombian leftist guerrillas free two high-level hostages
A deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could pave the way for the liberation of dozens of others being held in rebel camps.
Colombian leftist guerrillas released two of their most prized hostages Thursday, in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that could pave the way for a broad agreement for the liberation of dozens of others being held in rebel camps.Skip to next paragraph
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Politicians Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez were whisked from the jungles of southern Colombia where they had been held for six years to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, into the embrace of their families.
"They are finally safe, they are free," Ms. González's daughter Patricia Perdomo told Colombian radio from her hotel room in Caracas, her voice trembling with emotion.
It's the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, freed some 300 soldiers and police officers and it's being hailed as a political victory for Mr. Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Venezuela's interior minister, and Cuba's ambassador to Caracas received the two women from a rebel unit at an undisclosed meeting point. To facilitate the mission, Colombia suspended military operations in the area and closed the airspace above.
Their liberation came 10 days after an initial mission orchestrated by Chávez to free the women – plus the small child of Rojas who was born in captivity – was aborted abruptly after the revelation that the FARC were not in fact in possession of the boy.
Following a series of delays, the December release operation was called off on New Year's Eve when Mr. Uribe revealed that the rebels were dragging their feet on the announced handover because the boy they had promised to release had actually been in custody of Colombia's child protection services in Bogotá since 2005. DNA tests and a FARC admission confirmed Uribe's shocking announcement.
Victory for Chávez and Uribe
It was a victory for Uribe over the FARC and for Chávez, whom Uribe had grudgingly allowed to organize the handover operations. Embarrassed by having been fooled by the FARC, Chávez remained uncharacteristically quiet in the days that followed. But on Wednesday, Chávez announced that he had finally received the coordinates of where the two women would be dropped off by their captors.
Uribe had little choice but to allow the fiery leftist leader – who's called him a "puppet" and "lapdog" of Washington – to organize a new mission, but demanded it be done discreetly and "with respect for the Colombian government."
Despite the setback over the boy, the FARC now have the upper hand, analysts say. "The release will renew pressure on the government to make concessions for a wider agreement on the other hostages," says Román Ortiz, a security analyst with the Bogotá think tank Ideas Para la Paz.
Bruce Bagley, a Colombia analyst at the University of Miami, says that after the release the FARC will be expecting a response from the government. "They'll be thinking: 'OK, we made a gesture, now you make a gesture,' " he says.
Pressure to release more hostages