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Colombian rebels free four more hostages into Venezuelan custody
Colombia VenezuelaH 5418180
Colombia's High Comissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, left, walks with Colombia's Senator Piedad Cordoba on the tarmac at the airport in San Jose del Guaviare in southern Colombia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008. Venezuela's Venezuela's Justice and Interior Minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, is seen sixth from right. Two Venezuelan helicopters took off from San Jose to pick up four rebel-held hostages who have spent more than six years in captivity. - photo by Associated Press
    SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia — Colombian rebels freed four lawmakers on Wednesday after holding them for at least six years each, the guerrillas’ second hostage release this year as they seek to persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist organizations.
    The rebels handed over the four Colombian politicians to the International Red Cross and Venezuela’s interior minister around midday in a clearing in Colombia’s southern jungles. Two Venezuelan helicopters with doctors aboard flew them to Venezuelan territory, on their way to family reunions in Caracas. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke to them by phone.
    ‘‘They are safe and sound,’’ said Jesse Chacon, a top Chavez aide. He said 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.’’
    Chavez’s intercession in Colombia’s long-running conflict — and the hostage releases it has reaped — has 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 FARC has been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, but has in recent years drawn wide reproach for its methods: It kidnaps civilians for ransom and funds itself largely through cocaine trafficking.
    The four hostages were freed in the same region of Guaviare state where the FARC released two other politicians on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez.
    Those released Wednesday were former Reps. Gloria Polanco and Orlando Beltran and former Sens. Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Gechem. All were said to be ailing — Polanco with thyroid problems; Gechem with heart, back and ulcer problems.
    ‘‘Such a kidnapping surely tears out one’s insides,’’ Daniel Polanco, the youngest of Gloria Polanco’s three sons, told Colombia’s Caracol radio from 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. Their father was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC. Daniel 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 Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a close Chavez collaborator, as well as four Red Cross representatives and doctors.
    In a statement Wednesday on a pro-rebel Web site, the FARC thanked Chavez for his mediation efforts. After last month’s release, Chavez called on the international community to recognize the rebels as a legitimate armed opposition group, rather than calling them terrorists.
    The rebels repeated their demand that a safe zone be created for talks that could lead to a swap of rebel-held hostages for imprisoned rebels. And they accused the hardline 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.
    The FARC has proposed trading some 40 high-value captives — including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors — for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas. It has held some captives for a decade.
    But Uribe has resisted their conditions to begin a dialogue on a prisoner swap. His defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told reporters 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-based think tank 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 said. Uribe has ruled out Chavez as an intermediary.
    Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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