Colombian rebels said Tuesday in a statement that they had ordered the release of three hostages, including Clara Rojas, kidnapped in 2002 alongside French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.
|2002 frame grab from a Noticias Uno broadcast shows Ingrid Betancourt (R) and Clara Rojas (Photo: AFP)|
"The order to free them in Colombia has already been given," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said in a statement issued in Cuba and given to the Colombian government by the Cuban Ambassador to Bogota.
The Marxist rebels said they will free Rojas -- a top aide in Betancourt's 2002 presidential bid -- the three- or four-year-old son she had with an insurgent father while in captivity as well as lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez.
The statement said the captives would be handed over to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez or "whomever he opts to designate."
"It looks like a great Christmas gift, above all for the families" of the hostages, said Chavez, adding that he would not personally meet the hostages upon their release, and making it clear there was still a question of where they would be set free.
"We have various alternatives, none of which is easy ... because these people are in the heart of the jungle, of the mountains," he said in Montevideo where he was attending a Mercosur trade group summit.
The Colombian government at first reacted cautiously to the announcement, saying it could not verify its authenticity, but later changed once Chavez said he had received the same statement, and the Cuban ambassador handed them a copy.
"In view of the statement, the Colombian government welcomes ... the unilateral release, and we are satisfied with FARC's gestures toward Chavez," said Colombia's Peace Commissioner Carlos Restrepo.
The decision to involve Chavez, however, is likely to anger Bogota, which last month ended the Venezuelan president's participation in efforts to release some 45 hostages, including Betancourt, Gonzalez and Rojas, accusing him of siding with the FARC.
"This gesture makes amends to the relatives of those held, to Chavez and to Senator Piedad Cordoba," the FARC statement said. Cordoba, a Colombian lawmaker, had acted as mediator alongside Chavez.
The FARC condemned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's decision to end the mediation by Chavez and Cordoba.
The rebels said the decision also was an affront to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a personal interest in efforts to obtain the release of Betancourt, a dual French and Colombian citizen.
Then a senator, Betancourt was captured by the FARC when she took her 2002 presidential campaign to San Vicente del Caguan, an area then controlled by the insurgents.
Rojas, who was Betancourt's top aide and was later named her running mate, was captured alongside the presidential candidate.
It was revealed last year that Rojas gave birth to a son, named Emmanuel, while in captivity, and that the father was one of her captors. A hostage who managed to flee later confirmed the report.
Rojas' mother, Clara Gonzalez, broke down in tears when she heard news of the announced release on Tuesday. "I hope it is true," she kept repeating.
Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, told Venezuela's VTV television she was "very happy for the families of Clara and Consuelo," and issued an emotional appeal for her own daughter. "Take into account my daughter who is suffering so much. Do something to release Ingrid," she said.
The FARC also reiterated its demand that Uribe demilitarize a vast area that would serve "as a meeting point" for the proposed swap of the remaining political hostages against 500 jailed FARC rebels.
The FARC rejected the government's proposal for smaller zone in what it called "inhospitable, remote and clandestine" areas.
Prospects for the exchange had appeared to dim after Uribe ended Chavez' mediation, but the government's release of seized videos showing 16 of the hostages alive gave relatives new hope in late November.
Among the hostages shown in the footage was Betancourt and three US nationals captured in 2003 after the plane on which they were conducting an anti-drug operation was shot down.