(HOWARD YANES ~ Associated Press)
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Guerrillas clutching rifles marched two captives into a clearing in the Colombian jungle. Everyone was tense. The handover had been repeatedly delayed by logistical hurdles and mistrust, but then Venezuelan helicopters landed to pick up the hostages.
Then came the kisses.
The two women, held for some six years, embraced their captors, kissing a couple of female guerrillas on the cheek in farewell. The rebels exchanged greetings with the Venezuelan officials -- "Happy New Year!" someone exclaimed -- before melting back into the forest.
The hostages, who appeared thin but in good health, smiled broadly as they spoke by satellite phone with the man who had engineered their release: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"A thousand times thank you," Clara Rojas told him. "We are being reborn!"
She and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez were flown across the border, then boarded a plane to Caracas, where Chavez greeted them with hugs and kisses at the presidential palace. The women and their families stood alongside him and they sang Colombia's national anthem while a military band played.
Rojas was an aide to Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in February 2002 when the two were kidnapped on the campaign trail. She gave birth in captivity to a boy fathered by one of the guerrillas. Betancourt is still being held.
The other freed hostage, former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, had been abducted in September 2001. During her captivity, her husband died and a grandchild -- now 2 -- was born to one of her daughters.
Peace with Colombia
Their release was a major triumph for Chavez, whose leftist ideology helped win him a mediation role with the rebels. It was the most important hostage release in the half-century Colombian conflict since 2001, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, freed some 300 soldiers and police officers.
Chavez said the mission demonstrated that "there are possibilities" to secure the release of more FARC hostages, who include Betancourt and three American defense contractors.
"Venezuela will continue opening the way for peace in Colombia," Chavez said. "We are ready and in contact with the FARC, and we hope the Colombian government understands. I'm sure they will understand."
Colombia's U.S.-allied president, Alvaro Uribe, thanked Chavez in a televised speech for his "effort and efficiency" in winning the hostages' freedom.
The release could help the flamboyant Chavez take on a greater role in Latin America's longest-running conflict, in spite of recently hostile relations with Uribe. The release puts pressure on Uribe for government concessions to secure the release of 44 other high-profile captives.
The rebels sent "proof of life" letters from eight hostages, including lawmakers, a former state governor and a police officer, said Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who accompanied the mission.
Betancourt holds both Colombian and French citizenship, and France's government was cheered by Thursday's hostage release.
"This proves that things are moving, that the mobilization is bringing its first results," said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which has campaigned for Betancourt's release. "This commits us to boosting our efforts to bring the other hostages home."
The guerrillas have offered to exchange the 44 high-profile hostages for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the United States.
Chavez was trying to negotiate such an exchange in November when Uribe called him off, saying the Venezuelan leader improperly made direct contact with the head of Colombia's army. Chavez responded by freezing relations with Uribe.
FARC offered last month to release the two woman directly to Chavez, along with Rojas' 3-year-old son, Emmanuel. But that deal fell through Dec. 31 when FARC accused Colombia of conducting military operations in the area of the planned release.
Uribe's government said the guerrillas backed out because they didn't have the child -- a theory later proved by DNA tests that confirmed Emmanuel has been in a Bogota foster home for more than two years.
Rojas said her son was taken away from her eight months after his birth and she didn't receive news of him again until three years later, this New Year's Eve, when Uribe said the boy had been living in a foster home.
Rojas said she hopes to be reunited with Emmanuel soon. "I was always very worried to know where my baby was," she told Colombia's Caracol radio.
Rojas elderly mother, Clara Gonzalez de Rojas, was overcome with emotion as she hugged her daughter for the first time since 2002.
"I'm living a dream. I don't have words to describe it," she said in a quavering voice.
Chavez asked the news media to respect the released hostages' privacy. But Venezuela's state-supported television network Telesur broadcast video of the prisoner handover, complete with gushing statements of gratitude from the hostages to Chavez.
"President, a thousand thanks for your humanitarian gesture," Gonzalez was shown telling Chavez by satellite phone.
Within hours, they had met at the presidential palace and Chavez saw them off with hugs and kisses. Gonzalez and Rojas did not make any public comments as they got into a car and a van to leave.
The State Department welcomed the hostages' release and reiterated its call for FARC to release all of its hostages.
The head of the European Union's administrative body, Jose Manuel Barroso, called the women's freedom "an encouraging sign that all detained hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, will be released soon."
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who once was held hostage by a criminal gang for eight months, applauded the release, but added: "Let's not forget the more than 750 other hostages being held by the FARC, some held for more than 10 years, about whom we know nothing."