President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday that he hopes his archenemy, President Bush, plays a helpful role as the Venezuelan leader seeks to broker a deal for Colombian rebels to free hostages, including three Americans.
Chavez mentioned the possibility of Bush playing a role as he met with relatives of three U.S. defense contractors. He pledged to do everything in his power to secure their release by achieving a swap of hostages for guerrilla prisoners in Colombian jails.
“There are no political colors or ideologies here. President Bush, I hope he can help us,” Chavez said, noting that Bush has meetings planned soon with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has also been playing a role.
“I hope he is willing to help us,” Chavez said.
Prisoner swap sought
The Venezuelan leader noted that Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is demanding that two Colombian rebels imprisoned in the United States be included in any prisoner swap — an idea Uribe opposes.
“There is a tough point there,” Chavez said.
FARC rebel commander Nayibe “Sonia” Rojas was convicted this year by a U.S. court of exporting cocaine, and another, Ricardo Palmera — better known by the nom de guerre Simon Trinidad — is awaiting trial in the United States on similar drug trafficking charges.
Chavez said that while respecting legal channels, “I as president know that heads of state have powers” — suggesting the possibility of a U.S. pardon.
The socialist president, who last year captured world attention when he called Bush “the devil” in a speech to the United Nations, said he sees all hostages and prisoners equally, regardless of whether they are Americans or Colombians.
“Everyone has the same weight. They’re all human beings,” Chavez told the hostages’ relatives at the presidential palace.
In an emotional meeting that ended with a group prayer, the relatives of hostages Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes thanked Chavez for seeking to mediate their freedom.
The three have been held by Colombia’s largest rebel group since their small plane crashed in the country’s southern jungles during a surveillance mission in February 2003.
“I guarantee that we will never stop fighting for this, and I am committed to this,” said Chavez, who took the young son of one hostage in his arms.
The family members included Stansell’s parents, Gene and Lynne Stansell, Howes’ wife Mariana Howes , and Gonsalves’ father, George Gonsalves.
The last firsthand information they received about the hostages came earlier this year from an escaped hostage who spent 10 months in captivity at the same camp with the Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
The three Northrop Grumman Corp. contractors are among about 45 prominent hostages who — if the two sides manage to reach a deal — could be exchanged for rebel prisoners in Colombian jails.
Chavez faces difficult negotiations between rebels who demand a New York City-size demilitarized zone and a Colombian president who says he will not cede territory.
Speaking at the United Nations Tuesday, Uribe said he opposes freeing two Colombian rebels imprisoned in the United States as part of any prisoner swap.
“Let them return once they’ve served their sentences,” Uribe said.