Colombian hostages plead for asylum in Venezuela

A video released by Colombian guerrillas aired yesterday showing 12 kidnapped lawmakers pleading with their government to work with Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez to help obtain their release.

A video released by Colombian guerrillas aired yesterday showing 12 kidnapped lawmakers pleading with their government to work with Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez to help obtain their release.

The video, which aired on Colombia’s Caracol television station, was the first sign in 15 months that the provincial congressmen might still be alive. Leftist rebels dressed as police officers seized the men in April 2002 from a government building in the city of Cali, 190 miles southwest of the capital of Bogota.

In the video, three of the men beg Venezuela to grant them political asylum.

The appeal was thought to be an effort to force Chavez, who they believe has leverage with the guerrillas, to take up their plight in the wake of the Colombian government’s failure to win their freedom.

“I beg the international community for greater solidarity, and the people and government of Venezuela that they grant me political asylum,” said a lean but otherwise healthy looking Juan Carlos Narvaez in the video.

Narvaez also complained that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was not interested in obtaining their release, and asked former Cabinet member Alvaro Leyva to intervene.

It was the first time hostages held by Colombia’s rebel groups had asked for asylum in another country.

Leyva, who has extensive contacts with Colombia’s rebel groups, agreed to work for the hostages’ release as he announced his intention to run for president during a news conference last night.

Meanwhile, Uribe issued a statement from La Paz, Bolivia supporting the proposal.

“The government does not object that the hostages be granted asylum as a condition for release and we’re confident that President Chavez would agree,” he said.

Chavez, who has been accused of harbouring and providing support to Colombian rebels, has repeatedly offered to facilitate a prisoner swap, but the Colombian government has so far refused.

Instead, Uribe, with the support of three European nations, has been pursuing a humanitarian exchange of his own, even while leading a military campaign against the leftist guerrillas.

To win the release of 59 high-profile hostages, including three US defence contractors, the government has offered to free jailed guerrillas convicted of minor crimes.

But the country’s biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, wants the government to grant them a safe haven before any prisoner swap is discussed, which the president has so far rejected.

The FARC, which has been battling to topple the government for 40 years, is thought to have hundreds of hostages in remote jungle camps.

The missing include police and politicians, teenagers and three US Defence Department contractors whose plane crashed in rebel territory in 2003. Among the highest-profile hostages is Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped by rebels in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency.

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