Image: Colombia hostage mission
Officials and Venezuelan soldiers stand near an army helicopter bearing markings of the Red Cross at the Santo Domingo airport, near the Colombian border state of Tachira on Friday.
updated 12/30/2007 5:58:12 PM ET 2007-12-30T22:58:12

A Venezuelan-led mission to retrieve three rebel-held hostages was stalled amid conflict and tension on Sunday after a rocket narrowly missed an air force cargo plane as it landed in southern Colombia.

Air Force chief Gen. Jorge Ballesteros said about 50 soldiers were aboard the Hercules transport plane when unknown assailants fired on it from a nearby soccer stadium in the city of Neiva, in a region long besieged by leftist rebels who dominate its coca-growing countryside.

The rocket landed about 50 meters (150 feet) away from the plane and did not cause any injuries or damage, Ballesteros said. Authorities were investigating the incident.

The latest attack added to the nervous climate surrounding the hostage release, which appeared unlikely to be completed Sunday as originally promised by the Venezuelans.

Some 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Neiva, helicopters sent by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sat idle for a third consecutive day on the edge of Colombia's vast jungles, waiting for guerrillas to name the spot where they will hand over the three hostages: former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her 3-year old son Emmanuel, who was fathered by one of her guerrilla captors.

American filmmaker Oliver Stone and observers from France, Switzerland and six Latin American countries anxiously awaited the arrival as early as Sunday of Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, a former Chavez interior minister and coordinator of the mission.

"I guarantee this is going to take place successfully in the coming days, which day, I don't know," Chacin said in Caracas before meeting with hostages' relatives. "All I'm waiting for are the coordinates to be able to relocate to Colombia."

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, vowed weeks ago to free the women, who've been held captive for six years, to Chavez in appreciation for his efforts to broker a wider swap of 44 high-profile hostages, including three American defense contractors, for hundreds of jailed rebels.

Conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ended those efforts last month, but hostages' family members have urged Chavez on, saying he is the only intermediary capable of breaking a government-rebel deadlock.

The two sides have not held face-to-face talks since Uribe took power in 2002.

Uribe has instead used some US$600 million (euro410 million) in annual military and intelligence aid from Washington to push the half-century-old insurgency deeper into the jungle.

His offensive hasn't entirely clipped the guerrillas' ability to deliver a surprise, lethal attack -- especially in its France-size jungle stronghold that spreads east from Neiva.

Last week another rocket was fired on a caravan carrying the city's pro-government mayor, Cielo Gonzalez -- the fourth attempt on his life blamed on leftist rebels. In February 2003, an explosion next to the Neiva airport killed 18 on the eve of a visit by President Alvaro Uribe.

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