Colombian rebels free four more hostages

Thursday, February 28, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Colombian rebels freed four lawmakers Wednesday after six years of captivity, the guerrillas' second hostage release this year as they seek to persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist groups.

The rebels handed over the four Colombian politicians to the international Red Cross and a top official from Venezeulan President Hugo Chavez's government in a clearing in Colombia's southern jungles.

In video footage of the handover, the hostages appeared on a ridge, some raising arms in the air, then embraced officials sent to pick them up. Hostage Gloria Polanco received flowers from a female guerrilla and sobbed "thank you, thank you" to no one in particular as she wept.

"My sons, my sons," Polanco said breaking down, referring to the three young men who waited for her in Caracas. "I didn't know if I'd have a chance to see my three sons again." The handover was filmed by the Caracas-based TV channel Telesur.

A guerrilla commander who spoke on tape spoke of bombardments by the Colombian military that he said were close to the group and delayed the release.

Two Venezuelan helicopters flew the four to Venezuelan territory, where they landed at an airport in the western town of Santo Domingo. From there, they boarded a plane to be flown to family reunions in Caracas.

Relatives watched on a TV screen at Caracas' international airport and were transfixed, their eyes moist with tears, as they watched the freed captives step off the helicopter. The son of one hostage held a hand over his mouth as he watched.

Though some of the hostages were said to be ailing, they walked on their own on the tarmac, some of them carrying bags.

"Thank you very much, Hugo Chavez, for your commitment," another freed hostage, a gaunt former senator Jorge Gechem said, speaking into the camera.

Chavez spoke to them earlier by phone.

"They are safe and sound," said Jesse Chacon, a top Chavez aide. He said Venezuela hopes the release will help lead to "liberations of the remainder" and also open a path to peace.

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.

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. Colombia's government says it holds more than 700 people, either for ransom or political reasons.

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.

Also released Wednesday were former representative Orlando Beltran and former senator Luis Eladio Perez. All were said to be ailing -- Polanco with thyroid problems; Gechem with heart, back and ulcer problems.

Two of Polanco's three sons were kidnapped together with her and later released in 2004 after a ransom was paid. Her husband was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC.

Her youngest son, Daniel Polanco, who was 11 when Polanco was kidnapped, told Colombia's Caracol radio before the release that he and his brothers bought their mother flowers, balloons, two or three changes of clothes and cosmetics "so she can be pretty."

The helicopters apparently spent about two hours on the ground at the pickup location in Colombia. Aboard them were Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, and Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a close Chavez collaborator, as well as doctors and four representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, Tatiana Guerrero in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia, and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.

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