Chávez urges Colombia’s FARC rebels to free all civilian hostages

CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez urged Colombia's leftist FARC rebels to free all civilian hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Speaking to a round-table panel that included Betancourt's mother, Chávez directed his comments to the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, saying that holding people who have nothing to do with the rebels' fight against the Colombian government “doesn't make sense.''

''If I were a guerrilla, I wouldn't have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren't soldiers,'' Chávez said in a televised speech Saturday night. “Free the civilians who don't have anything to do with the war. I don't agree with that.''

Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, was campaigning for Colombia's presidency when she was kidnapped more than six years ago. The French government sent a humanitarian mission to Colombia last week, to give medical aid and lobby for her release — only to be turned away by the guerrillas.

Chávez, who helped secure the release of six rebel-held hostages earlier this year, said he can understand that guerrillas would capture soldiers or police officers as prisoners of war in the decades-long conflict. ''But that isn't the case of Ingrid Betancourt or the rest of the kidnapped civilians,'' he said.

Betancourt is among 40 high-value hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors. The FARC holds more than 700 people in all, according to Colombia's government.

Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, thanked Chávez for his efforts in calling for her daughter's release. ''I'm worried about her health and about the military operations that are continuing uninterrupted,'' she said.

Chávez has said he has had no way of reaching the FARC after Colombia's cross-border attack on a rebel camp in Ecuador last month, which killed top FARC leader Raúl Reyes. But he assured Pulecio: “We're going to keep getting involved.''