Colombian Rebels Release Two Hostages to Venezuela

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 11, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, Jan. 10 -- Two women held captive by Colombian rebels for most of this decade were handed over to the Venezuelan government Thursday, triggering euphoria among their friends and family and raising hopes that other hostages could soon be released.

Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped in 2002, and Consuelo Gonzalez, who was abducted in 2001, were freed in a grassy field in the rural Colombian state of Guaviare. Two Venezuelan helicopters, given the green light by Colombian President ¿lvaro Uribe, flew to Guaviare to pick up the hostages after guerrillas provided their coordinates.

"We thank you from our souls for being with us," Rojas, a Bogota lawyer and politician, told Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez by satellite phone in a conversation recorded by the Telesur network and broadcast live across Latin America.

"We are being reborn," she said. "Imagine our happiness when we saw the helicopters."

Handed the phone as the two stood near the guerrillas, Gonzalez, a former lawmaker, told Ch¿vez: "Mr. President, a thousand thanks for your humanitarian work. Please, president, don't drop your guard. The ones left behind wanted you to get that message."

The liberation was a resounding triumph for Ch¿vez, who just last month suffered an unexpected political blow when Venezuelans rejected a proposed constitutional reform that would have expanded his powers. An earlier effort by Ch¿vez to win the Colombian hostages' freedom unraveled on New Year's Eve.

But the president's fortunes changed Thursday, as Rojas and Gonzalez were flown out of the jungle and to the Venezuelan capital. Telesur, a station run by the Venezuelan government, filmed every stage of a dramatic process that had people across the region glued to their television sets.

Ch¿vez shares a revolutionary affinity with the guerrillas, making him an ideal broker to guerrilla commanders, who distrust Uribe's government.

The release immediately raised hopes that future negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could lead to the liberation of other hostages. The group holds nearly 800 people, among them Ingrid Betancourt, a politician with French and Colombian citizenship who was captured with her aide, Rojas. Also in captivity are three American contractors for the Pentagon whose plane crashed in guerrilla territory in 2003.

"This is without a doubt a historic event," Germ¿n S¿nchez Otero, the Cuban ambassador in Venezuela, who also took part in the operation, told Telesur. "What happens in Colombia is also the responsibility of the Cubans, of the Venezuelans, of the Argentines . . . of all of the world."

Ch¿vez, speaking on Colombian radio, said his country "will continue opening the way for peace in Colombia. We are ready, and in contact with the FARC."

In France, where the plight of Betancourt is a cause celebre, President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "This commits us to boosting our efforts to bring the other hostages home."

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