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Chavez says no military solution to war in Colombia

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Saturday that Colombia’s long guerrilla war had no military solution and peace talks would only prosper when rebel armies there were labelled insurgents, not terrorists.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (C) speaks at National Assembly to present the annual state of the nation in Caracas January 11, 2008. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout

The leftist Venezuelan leader enjoyed international praise this week for securing the freedom of two female politicians kidnapped by Colombia’s Marxist rebels.

He now wants to play a bigger part in ending the conflict in Colombia and has called for world governments to drop the two main rebel armies there from terrorism lists.

“There is no military solution to the conflict,” he told activists at a socialist party conference on Saturday.

“As long as the Colombian government keeps calling them terrorist groups that should be exterminated, what peace is possible?” he added, echoing a rebel demand.

On Friday, Colombia rejected a previous call by Chavez to stop labelling the rebels as terrorists, saying they had carried out indiscriminate civilian bombings, recruited child soldiers, kidnapped and dealt drugs.

The conflict in Colombia has dragged on for decades. Despite a recent U.S.-funded offensive that has pushed the guerrillas out of towns and into rural strongholds, many analysts say it will be difficult for the army to crush the rebels.

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The largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, uses kidnapping as a weapon in its war against the state and holds hundreds of hostages in remote jungle camps.

The rebels say they are fighting for fairer wealth distribution. They are well-financed through their participation in the Andean country’s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

Chavez and Colombia’s conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, have bickered for months over Chavez’s role in mediating a swap of hostages for guerrillas imprisoned by the government.

Uribe is wary of his socialist neighbour, who has good relations with the guerrillas and frequently invokes a brief period in the 19th century when the two countries were united as one.

Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Peter Cooney