World News

Hugo Chavez tells rebels to stop kidnapping

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Marxist rebels in neighbouring 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 labelled 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 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 and is largely financed by cocaine trafficking.

Chavez said recognizing the rebels as insurgents with political aims would lead them to obey rules of war established under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit kidnapping.

Accompanied on his TV show by one of the 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 defence 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 Colombian government. He has also offered to hold peace talks within Venezuela, but Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe is wary of his socialist neighbour.

Reporting by Patricia Rondon, Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Eric Walsh