Chavez gets one over rival as hostages set for release

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chavez is prepared to send planes and helicopters into neighbouring Colombia to pick up three hostages who have been held for years by leftist rebels.

The hostages’ release would be the most important in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when Colombia’s largest rebel group freed 300 soldiers and police officers it had captured and held.

Colombia’s largest rebel group announced last week that it would unilaterally hand over the three hostages to Mr Chavez, demonstrating the guerrillas’ affinity for the socialist leader.

The release would be an international blessing for Mr Chavez, allowing the self-styled revolutionary to outshine Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — a US-backed leader with whom his relations have grown hostile — on the Colombian leader’s own turf.

The three hostages are former Colombian congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and Rojas’ son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a rebel fighter.

Ms Gonzalez and Ms Rojas have spent about six years held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while Emmanuel is thought to be about three years old.

Mr Chavez said he hoped another batch would later be freed, including a dual French-Colombian citizen.

Mr Chavez was trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange before Mr Uribe called him off last month, saying the Venezuelan had overstepped his mandate by directly contacting the head of Colombia’s army. Mr Chavez has since frozen relations with Mr Uribe.

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