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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.

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And while Uribe is not inclined to make gestures toward the FARC, international pressure will continue to build for him to seek the release of the other 44 high-profile hostages including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors, and dozens of local politicians and military and police officers. Many have been held for as long as a decade. The rebels are using the hostages to gain political leverage nationally and internationally and to seek their exchange for jailed rebels.

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"The issue is not going to go away," says Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. Since he took power, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has made the release of Ms. Betancourt a foreign-policy priority. Washington, which backs the Colombian government with annual aid of more than $600 million, insists it does not negotiate with groups it regards as terrorist. However, Uribe was in direct contact with President Bush during the aborted December release mission.

A State Department spokesman welcomed the release of the hostages and called on the FARC "to release all hostages that it holds and we continue to support President Uribe's efforts to that end."

In addition to the so-called "exchangeable" hostages who have a political value, the FARC are estimated to hold more than 700 other hostages for ransom.

"This has to be the beginning of an effort that culminates with the release of all the "exchangeable" hostages and all the victims kidnapped for ransom," says Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba, who acted as facilitator when Chávez officially played the role of mediator between the Colombian government and the FARC last fall.

Will the FARC increase attacks?

But at the same time, according to observers, Colombia could see an increase in FARC attacks throughout the country. "They will try to demonstrate that despite the setback and despite their willingness to release hostages, they are still powerful," says Mr. Bagley.

In fact, top FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda last week called on his forces, believed to number about 12,000, to launch a "general offensive" against the government. In a communiqué he said the rebels should launch attacks "on highways, in villages, in the jungle, and barracks, without giving the enemy respite."

The FARC has been weakened by a sustained government offensive that has pushed the insurgents into tactical retreat from urban centers into the mountains and jungles of the Colombia. But while the botched handover showed cracks in the command and control of the guerrilla army, Bagley says the FARC "retain considerable firepower."

The FARC will now set the tone for what is to come, says Ortiz. Previously, the rebels had demanded the demilitarization of two counties as a stage for negotiations for a hostage-for-prisoner swap, which Uribe had rejected. "There is no rationalization for a demilitarized zone now," says Ortiz. "The ball's in their court. They have to decide what they will demand now."

Under pressure to act to free the hostages, Uribe in August authorized Chávez to try to broker a deal with the FARC, who greatly admire Chávez.

But after three months of the Venezuelan leader's grandstanding, Uribe dismissed Chávez, raising tensions between the two leaders and unveiling a mutual mistrust.

But Chávez clearly plans to play a role in Colombia's conflict. On announcing the release of the women Chávez declared: "Venezuela will continue opening paths to peace in Colombia.

"We are ready, and in contact with the FARC, and we hope the Colombian government understands," Chávez said. "The world wants peace for Colombia."