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Colombia's Uribe soars after freeing hostages

The president's approval rating skyrocketed to 90 percent after the military freed 15 high-profile hostages from a jungle rebel camp.

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Following those setbacks, "the FARC is trying to regroup," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "[Uribe] felt that before [FARC was] able to regroup, this was the time to take a risk. I think it illustrates the disarray of the FARC [and] also the improved capacity of the Colombian government and their greater intelligence."

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For Uribe, raid eases political woes

For Mr. Uribe, the operation could not have come a better time. His government had been thrown into a tailspin by a corruption scandal that cast doubts on the legitimacy of his current term as president. "It's like a soothing balm for Uribe," says Mr. Rangel.

It's also a coup for Uribe because the conservative leader's leftist nemesis in neighboring VenezuelaHugo Chávez - had been scoring big PR points by brokering the release of several FARC hostages in recent months.

The fact that Mr. Chávez was not involved bolsters Uribe, says Shifter. "It offsets Chávez's argument that he's the only one who can succeed in releasing hostages. It dilutes Chávez's bravado. This is something the Colombian government did on its own."

But at home, Uribe's political troubles remain unsolved. His second term has come into question by a Colombian Supreme Court ruling in a bribery case that just days before the rescue operation, appeared to complicate Uribe's chances to continue in power.

The court sentenced a former member of Colombia's congress to nearly four years in prison for accepting favors in exchange for casting the deciding vote in the constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe's reelection.

The court called into question the legitimacy of the election.

Those who oppose the idea of changing the Constitution so that he can run again in 2010 say it would put him in league with his continental rival, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has been widely characterized as autocratic for doing his utmost to try to stay president for life.

Critics: Uribe becoming autocratic

The center-left opposition party Polo Democrático Alternativo, while praising the rescue operation has said it is concerned about Uribe possibly using it to amass too much power.

"We will continue with our criticism of the government for eroding state institutions," said Polo leader Carlos Gaviria Díaz.

Now analysts say Uribe's government is set up for a battle with the courts.

Uribe has long been at odds with the Supreme Court, which has vigorously prosecuted close allies of the president – including his second cousin – for allegedly colluding with right-wing death squads. One in 10 Colombian congressmen are in prison in that scandal.

Still, Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere at the Johns Hopkins University School for Strategic International Studies says there's little to stop Uribe now: "If he wants a third term, he'll get a third term."

Staff writer Sara Miller Llana contributed from Mexico City.

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