December 30, 2007 / 9:23 PM / 12 years ago

Colombia hostage release put off another day

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (Reuters) - Three hostages held for years in Colombian by Marxist guerrillas will not be handed to a Venezuelan chopper team until at least Monday but officials said they were in constant contact with the rebels.

Former Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, in charge of the hostage rescue operation, talks to reporters in Caracas December 30, 2007. REUTERS/Edwin Montilva

The powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, promised two weeks ago to free two former Colombian politicians and the young son born to one of them in captivity but have not yet revealed their whereabouts.

“We don’t have the time to start and finish the operation today,” a senior government official said from the town of Villavicencio, where Venezuelan helicopters are waiting to be dispatched to pick up the captives.

The Marxist FARC negotiated the hostage release with neighboring Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, who expressed worries the handover will fail if it does not happen soon.

“If this were to drag on three or four or five days, for security reasons, it could collapse and we would have to think of something else,” Chavez said late on Saturday.

Others involved in planning the handover said there was still time for the FARC to say where it was keeping Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her son Emmanuel, who was fathered by a guerrilla fighter and is thought to be 4 years old.

The FARC uses kidnapping as a weapon in a guerrilla war it has been fighting against the Colombian state since the 1960s.

Colombia’s conservative government is wary of Chavez and his dream of uniting South America through socialism but has let him fly Venezuelan aircraft under the auspices of the Red Cross deep into its territory to collect the hostages.

Colombia says it will allow the Venezuelans the time necessary to complete the mission.

CONSTANT CONTACT

Venezuela’s foreign minister said on Sunday the government was in constant communication with the guerrillas but did not say what was stalling the operation.

Chavez blamed poor weather and difficult terrain for the rebels’ delay but the outspoken critic of the United States said he does not rule out U.S. interference.

“There could be acts of harassment, let’s hope not, to try and make things difficult, to lengthen the waiting time,” he said on Saturday.

The Unites States funds military training and runs anti-drugs operations in Colombia.

Foreign envoys flew to the central Colombian town of Villavicencio on Saturday to observe the mission. Among them were former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, officials from France and Switzerland and U.S. film director Oliver Stone, who is making a documentary about Latin America.

Villavicencio is a gateway to southern jungles where the FARC controls wide areas used to produce the cocaine that funds its insurgency. The group is holding more than 700 hostages for ransom and political leverage.

Helicopters sent by Chavez to the hot and humid town at the foot of the Andes mountains on Friday remained grounded there waiting for orders.

The mission is being closely watched by French President Nicolas Sarkozy who believes it could lead to freeing other high-profile captives, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, in exchange for jailed guerrillas.

The rebels also hold three American anti-drug contractors.

Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Bogota; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott

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