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.
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
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.
"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."