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Colombian rebels say all hostages are alive: Chavez


Paris : Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez said that the leader of Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) has promised to provide proof that all their hostages, including Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, are alive, Spanish news agency EFE reported Wednesday.

Chavez revealed this during his meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy here Tuesday. He also said that FARC leader Manuel Marulanda had promised to provide that proof before the end of this year.

In August Chavez agreed to mediate between Bogota and the FARC to bring about a prisoners exchange following a request by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The Venezuelan leader briefed Sarkozy about the latest developments in his efforts to broker a swap.

“We have received a letter from FARC leader Marulanda in which he committed himself to providing proof that Betancourt and the other hostages being held by the rebel group are alive,” Chavez said.

Chavez said he and Sarkozy were “very optimistic” about the chances of securing the release not only of Ingrid, who has been held hostage for more than five years, but also of the other people kidnapped by the FARC.

Sarkozy has been closely involved in the efforts to free Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian-French citizenship, since he took office on May 16.

Asked about the deadline set by Uribe for achieving concrete results in winning the hostages’ release, Chavez said it was “not good to get impatient.”

Meanwhile, the Colombian High Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, in a statement Tuesday said that President Alvaro Uribe insisted that the meeting between Chavez and FARC representatives must see the release of a group of hostages with the promise of freeing all of them.

However, Restrepo said that the Dec 31 deadline for efforts to bring about a humanitarian exchange was not an ultimatum, but he warned that results were needed.

Responding to this, Chavez said he would talk with Uribe to clarify the situation, and emphasised that in the last three months of mediation “we have made advances” that had not been achieved in the past five years.

The FARC, which has around 12,000-18,000 members, is the largest and best-equipped rebel group of Colombia. It is also considered as one of the world’s richest and most powerful guerrilla armies. It operates in almost half of the country and is financing itself mainly through extortion, kidnapping ransoms and drug trafficking.

In 1999, then Colombian President Andres Pastrana started peace negotiations with the FARC. But the talks ended in 2002 and Pastrana ordered Colombian forces to start military operation against the rebel group.

The Colombian government and the FARC, with the mediation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian lawmaker Piedad Cordoba, have been seeking to work out a humanitarian accord that is expected to facilitate exchange of prisoners.