By JENNY BARCHFIELD
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 8:40 PM
PARIS -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claimed Tuesday that Colombia's president was prepared to join him in meeting a top rebel commander in the jungle, even as Colombia tried to clip the outspoken Chavez' negotiating wings.
Chavez predicted that the fate of three Americans held by the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and two rebels imprisoned in the United States would be the main stumbling block to any future negotiations. The three American hostages have been held since their small plane went down in Colombia's southern jungles during a surveillance mission in February 2003.
The FARC hold about 45 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped nearly six years ago. It proposes exchanging the hostages for all their imprisoned comrades, thought to number around 500. The group also demands that the U.S. set free the two rebels.
Chavez said the FARC promised to furnish proof by year's end that Betancourt is alive. The captivity of Betancourt, who is part French, has fixated France and was central to Chavez's talks on Tuesday with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Betancourt was campaigning for Colombia's presidency when she abducted. The last time she was seen publicly was in a video statement in 2003.
"Ingrid is alive. I'm absolutely certain," Chavez told reporters.
Chavez has in recent months assumed the role of mediator in efforts to secure a prisoner hostage swap between Colombia and the FARC leftist rebel group. But Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, appears to be losing patience with Chavez's tactics and set a time limit for his efforts.
In Bogota, Uribe's office said in a statement that it has conditionally offered to permit a meeting between Chavez and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda if the rebels "unilaterally set free a group of hostages and commit to free the rest."
The statement said the Colombian president would be willing to meet with Marulanda "only when all the hostages are released and with a peace process under way."
Chavez, however, suggested the size of the group remained undefined and that it would be up the FARC to decide who would be released first. He laughed at a suggestion that all the prisoners would be freed in one batch.
"If they free everyone, why would I go?" Chavez asked.
On Monday, Uribe's government said it was setting a deadline of the end of December for the Venezuelan president's efforts, signaling diminishing patience with the media spectacle Chavez has made of the mediation.
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Chavez appeared to brush off the deadline, renewing his offer to sit down with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda and saying Uribe told him he would join them.
"President Uribe said he would be willing to go there ... to speak with Marulanda," Chavez said. He added that Uribe conditioned any talks on Marulanda releasing a first group of hostages. The two presidents met in Santiago, Chile, earlier this month.
Associated Press writers Sandra Sierra in Caracas, Venezuela; Toby Muse in Bogota, Colombia; and Christine Ollivier in Paris contributed to this report.