World News

Colombia says Chavez bolsters rebels' hostage stance

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s political backing for Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas will make it harder to secure a deal to release dozens of hostages held by rebel leaders, the Colombian government said.

Colombian politicians Consuelo Gonzalez (2nd L) and Clara Rojas (R) are welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (C) after being freed at Miraflores Palace, Caracas January 10, 2008. The FARC rebels freed the Colombian politicians who had been held for years in secret jungle camps. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said FARC guerrillas would harden their position since receiving public support from Chavez, who leads a bloc of left-wing presidents in Latin America and is a fierce critic of U.S. policies.

“For the moment, we see a tougher position ... motivated by the political space which President Hugo Chavez has tried to open for them,” Restrepo said in a document published on Monday on the peace commission’s Web site.

Chavez wants the FARC rebels removed from foreign terrorism lists after the guerrillas handed two hostages over to his government in January.

Colombia’s conservative government at first backed Chavez’s efforts to win the release of dozens of captives held for years by Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, but later accused him of favoring the rebels.

“The incendiary statements in recent days have stimulated them to toughen their position, which for the moment makes the possibility of a negotiated solution more distant,” Restrepo said.

Chavez calls Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a pawn of U.S. “imperialism”, and he maintains contact with the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- the country’s largest rebel group.

Washington calls the FARC cocaine-smuggling terrorists and the rebels have been pushed back by a U.S.-funded security campaign. Violence has ebbed although the FARC is still fighting in rural areas where the state’s presence is weak.

Guerrillas are holding 44 high-profile captives they want to free in exchange for the release of rebels held in prison.

The hostages include French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. Defense Department contractors all captured more than five years ago.

The FARC has said it will soon hand over three more hostages -- all ailing former Colombian lawmakers captured more than six years ago -- to Chavez or his delegate.

Restrepo said the releases negotiated between the FARC and Chavez were aimed at building international pressure on Uribe to cede to their demands for a broader hostage agreement.

Attempts by three European countries and the Roman Catholic Church to broker hostage talks have stalled over the FARC’s demand that Uribe demilitarize a rural area the size of New York City in southern Colombia to facilitate a hostage accord.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnap bid two decades ago, has refused, saying it would allow the guerrillas to regroup. He has offered a smaller zone for talks under international observation.

Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota, Editing by Kieran Murray