Chávez wins release of hostages held by Colombian rebels

Diplomatic coup for Chávez as four hostages held for more than six years released

Colombian guerrillas yesterday released four hostages who had been held in the jungle for more than six years, delivering a diplomatic coup to Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, who brokered the deal.

Two Venezuelan helicopters scooped up the three men and a woman from a clearing in eastern Colombia and airlifted them to a reunion with relatives waiting in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.

The releases raised hopes that Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), would free more of the estimated 700 hostages languishing in primitive conditions.

Gloria Polanco, 49, Luis Eladio Pérez, 57, Orlando Beltran, 48, and Jorge Gechem, 56, all former members of Colombia's senate and congress, were abducted separately in 2001 and 2002. They appear to have been released because they were ill.

"I was the living dead but today ... I am happy, lucky, radiant," said Polanco, reunited with her three sons in Caracas.

The hardline attitude of President Alvaro Uribe's conservative government to the rebels has blocked efforts to free hostages and Chávez has used his influence with Farc to break the deadlock. After winning the release of two female hostages last month, he urged the international community to recognise Farc as a legitimate army, not a terrorist organisation. President Uribe remains under intense pressure domestically and internationally to seek a broad agreement to swap the remaining hostages for jailed Farc rebels. In a communiqué the Farc yesterday said there would be no further unilateral releases until a demilitarized zone was ceded near the city of Cali, a long-standing demand the government has repeatedly rejected.


Rory Carroll in Caracas, and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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