Chavez Says U.S. Can Help in Negotiations to Free Colombian Hostages

As part of his efforts to mediate a humanitarian accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for help from the United States yesterday.
Hugo Chavez, center, holds hands of children during  meeting with relatives of hostages kidnapped by rebels in Colombia at presidential palace in Caracas, 25 Sep 2007

Caracas, September 26, 2007, ( – As part of his efforts to mediate a humanitarian accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for help from the United States yesterday. "The government of the United States can help, a lot," Chavez said during a meeting in Caracas with the families of three US private security contractors for Northrop Grumman Corp. Thomas Howe, Keith Stannsen, and Marc Gonsalvez, who were captured by the FARC in 2003 when their spy plane crashed in the Colombian jungle.

"I hope Bush has the disposition to help because the guerrillas are demanding 'Simón Trinidad' and 'Sonia' [two members of the FARC imprisoned in the US]," Chavez continued.

In addition to the release of Simón Trinidad and Sonia, in exchange for the three US citizens held hostage by the FARC, the FARC are also demanding the release of 500 of its guerrillas fighters held in Colombian jails, in exchange for 45 hostages, including French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate captured in 2002.

However, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose administration handed over Sonia and Trinidad to the US, ruled out any possibility of a prisoner swap involving the two Colombian guerrillas, "The government of Colombia does not support the request that the US should return Sonia and Trinidad… They can return once they have completed their sentences in the United States."

Instead, Uribe proposed that the US, a key ally which has provided billions of dollars in military aid to the Colombian government for its war against the FARC, send a congressional delegation to attend a negotiating meeting between Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, Chavez, and the FARC, which is due to take place in Caracas on October 8.

Uribe said that the US delegation should be formed by members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, saying, "This relationship is not party to party, government to government, but rather of the US state and the Colombian state."

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice immediately indicated she supports the idea of the involvement of a US congressional delegation in the mediation.

Uribe also rejected any possibility of a demilitarized zone, as demanded by the FARC to facilitate the safe exchange of hostages, saying he believes it "could be used by the FARC to strengthen their positions." His primary obligation, Uribe said, was to "defend the higher principles of the state."

Earlier this month Uribe also refused to allow a negotiating meeting to take place between Chavez and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda on Colombian soil, insisting any such meeting must be held in Venezuela.

However, Chavez, who will meet with Uribe again on October 1st, said he remained optimistic about the possibility of achieving a humanitarian accord. "I guarantee that we will never stop fighting for this, I am committed to this," he added.

The relatives of the US hostages thanked Chavez for his mediation. "Personally, it is the first moment in which I have hope in years," Howe's father told Chavez.

Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, who also attended the meeting with Chavez, similarly said she was "full of hope."

As part of his efforts to achieve a humanitarian accord Chavez has also met with families of Colombian hostages held by the FARC, and hosted a negotiating meeting between Colombia's other main guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace in Caracas on September 7.

Chavez has recieved international support for his mediating role in the negotiations for a humanitarian accord, including from Bolivian President, Evo Morales, Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, President Luiz Ignacio "Lula" da Silva of Brazil, president Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

According to Senator Cordoba the process of negotiations for a humanitarian accord also enjoys majority support from Colombians who want to see an end to the 40-year civil war.

An international campaign in support of peace in Colombia has been initiated with a Committee of International Support for a Humanitarian Accord in Colombia being launched yesterday in the Municipal Theatre in Caracas, with the participation of Cordoba, Venezuelan National Assembly Deputy Dario Vivas, deputies of the Latin American Parliament, as well as various Venezuelan and Colombian social organisations.

Vivas explained that a process of collecting signatures has begun so that, "the Colombian, Venezuelan, and Latin American peoples and all the peoples of the world can express their support in favor of a humanitarian accord in Colombia."