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Colombian rebels free 4 hostages

Four hostages freed by Colombian rebels have been reunited with their families at Caracas airport, ending more than six years of their captivity.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Four hostages freed by Colombian rebels have been reunited with their families at Caracas airport, ending more than six years of their captivity.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Colombian politicians were freed in a clearing in Colombia's southern jungles. Two Venezuelan helicopters with doctors aboard had flown them directly to the bordering Andean country.

"They are safe and sound," Jesse Chacon, a top aide to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, said in Venezuela. He said Chavez had spoken to them by phone after their release and that the doctors were treating them.

Venezuela hopes the release "will help us continue advancing on the path to achieving liberations of the remainder and of course to what we all yearn for: peace in Colombia," Chacon added.

Chavez's intercession in Colombia's long-running conflict — and the hostage releases it has reaped — have raised the profile of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as it seeks to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of international terrorist groups.

The four were to be transferred in the Venezuelan border town of Santo Domingo to planes that would fly them to Caracas for reunions with their families.

The FARC, said when it announced on Jan. 31 its plans to free three of the four, former Reps. Gloria Polanco and Orlando Beltran and ex-Sens. Luis Eladio Perez, that they were ailing. Ex-Sen. Jorge Gechem was later added to the group.

Polanco is said to have suffered ailments including thyroid problems, while Gechem has heart, back and ulcer problems.

'Camino a La Paz'
The four were freed in the same region where the FARC released two other politicians on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez. Venezuelan state radio called the operation "Camino a La Paz," or Path to Peace.

"Such a kidnapping surely tears out one's insides," Daniel Polanco, the youngest of Gloria Polanco's three sons, told Colombia's Caracol radio in Caracas. He was 11 years old when his mother was kidnapped.

His two older brothers were seized with his mother and released in 2004 after a ransom was paid and their father was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC. Polanco said they had bought their mother flowers, balloons, two or three changes of clothes and cosmetics "so she can be pretty the first days."

Aboard the helicopters were Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin and close Chavez collaborator Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, as well as four Red Cross representatives and doctors.

Grateful for mediation efforts
In a communique received Wednesday via e-mail by Caracol, the FARC said "we wish to thank" Chavez for his mediation efforts.

Right after last month's release, Chavez called on the international community to recognize the rebels as belligerents.

The rebels repeated their demand that a safe zone be created for talks that could lead to a prisoner swap. And they accused the hard-line government of President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's top ally in Latin America, of mounting "a gigantic military operation" in the area where the hostages were freed.

They FARC have proposed trading trade some 40 high-value captives, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.

But Uribe has resisted their conditions to begin a dialogue on a prisoner swap. His defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told reporters on Wednesday that the FARC "has always used the swap to win political space and try to discredit the government."

"This release is very positive, but the larger hostage-for-prisoner exchange process is as stuck as ever," said Adam Isacson, Colombia analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based think thank Center for International Policy.

"With this second unilateral release, the FARC are making clear that they only want to work with Hugo Chavez, as their preferred facilitator," he added.

Uribe has ruled out Chavez as an intermediary, however.

The Venezuelan helicopters took off from the Venezuelan border town of Santo Domingo, said Yves Heller, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bogota.