January 13, 2008 / 11:29 PM / 12 years ago

Hugo Chavez tells Colombian rebels to stop kidnapping

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Marxist rebels in neighboring Colombia should stop using kidnapping as a weapon in their war against the state, following the release of two women hostages this week.

File photo shows Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talking during a PSUV Venezuela's United Socialist Party meeting in Caracas January 11, 2008. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout

Chavez, who brokered the deal to release the hostages and is on good terms with rebel leaders, also repeated a call for the fighters to be labeled insurgents instead of terrorists.

“I don’t agree with kidnapping and I don’t agree with armed struggle,” Chavez said on his weekly television broadcast. He said he wanted to speak with the leader of one guerrilla group to tell him what he thought.

Chavez was showered with praise this week after the hostages were freed, but even allies like Ecuador balked at his call to drop the terrorist label. The groups use child soldiers and are accused of setting-off indiscriminate bombs in civilian areas.

The largest force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has thousands of members and says it is fighting for social justice. It holds hundreds of hostages for political influence and is largely financed by Colombia’s multi-billion dollar cocaine business.

Chavez said recognizing the rebels as insurgents with political aims would make them obey the rules of war established in the Geneva Convention, which prohibits kidnapping.

Accompanied on the television show by one of the former hostages released on Thursday, Chavez said the Colombian internal conflict could not be resolved through military means.

Chavez is an outspoken critic of the United States, which funds a Colombian army offensive against the rebels. He accused Washington of obstructing peace in the Andean nation.

The FARC still hold three American defense contractors and Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt.

The leftist president would like to play a wider role in securing a swap of guerrilla-held hostages for rebels imprisoned by the government.

He has also offered to hold peace talks within Venezuela, but Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe is wary of his socialist neighbor.

Reporting by Patricia Rondon

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