By Christopher Toothaker
Saturday, January 12, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 11 -- President Hugo Ch¿vez took the side of rebels in neighboring Colombia's decades-old civil conflict Friday, calling the guerrillas "true armies" and urging the international community to stop considering them terrorists.
The statements from the fiery Ch¿vez, emboldened by his success in getting the rebels to free two hostages a day earlier, angered Colombia's U.S.-allied government, which has made eradicating the guerrillas its priority.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army "are not terrorists, they are true armies. . . . They must be recognized," Ch¿vez said.
"They are insurgent forces that have a political project," he said in a marathon speech to lawmakers. "I say it even though someone could be bothered by it."
Ch¿vez's defense of the FARC was the clearest and most pronounced of his presidency, and appeared to exacerbate tensions with Colombian President ¿lvaro Uribe even as the Venezuelan leader sought to play an increasing role as a mediator in his neighbor's conflict.
The FARC -- Colombia's largest guerrilla group with about 14,000 fighters -- has repeatedly asked world governments to remove it from their lists of foreign terrorist organizations. Ch¿vez echoed that call, urging European and Latin American nations to resist "U.S. pressure."
The European Union joined Washington in classifying the FARC as a terrorist group in 2002, outlawing all economic support for the movement, which is accused of large-scale drug trafficking, hundreds of kidnappings and attacks on civilians.
Jos¿ Obdulio Gaviria, a close adviser to Uribe, reacted angrily to Ch¿vez's speech.
"The FARC uses violence against democratic government and civil populations. In the canon of international law, that makes them a terrorist group," he said.
Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said Colombia "cannot accept a request of this sort."
Officials in Bogota already were upset that Venezuelan Justice Minister Ram¿n Rodr¿guez Chac¿n -- Ch¿vez's go-between with the FARC -- appeared to express support for the rebels during Thursday's hostage release.
"We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort," Rodr¿guez Chac¿n told the rebels during a video made of the prisoner handover.
Ch¿vez's statements are likely to raise concerns in Washington, where officials have long suspected that the Venezuelan leader clandestinely supports the FARC -- a charge he denies.
Ch¿vez basked in praise for Thursday's release of two Colombian women who were held hostage by the FARC for about six years. After tearful reunions with their relatives waiting in Caracas, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonz¿lez greeted Ch¿vez with hugs and kisses.
Ch¿vez said he hoped the success could be repeated for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and dozens of other FARC captives, including three Americans. But he said that largely depended on Uribe.
The guerrillas have offered to trade 44 high-profile captives for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the United States. But Uribe has refused to let Ch¿vez meet with FARC leaders on Colombian soil.
The handover was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed about 300 soldiers and police officers.