Chávez wins freedom for Colombian hostages

· Rebels release pair in deal with Venezuelan president
· Mother will meet son born in jungle captivity

Venezuelan Red Cross helicopters plucked two high-profile Colombian hostages from the jungle yesterday, ending their six-year kidnap ordeal and raising hopes for other hostages. A day of drama ended in breakthrough after Clara Rojas, a former Colombian vice-presidential candidate, and Consuelo González, a former member of the country's congress, were retrieved from a remote region in eastern Colombia, in a deal brokered by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez.

The freed captives were being flown to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, last night. An earlier deal to release them in December broke down.

"I told them 'Welcome to life, welcome to life'," Chávez told journalists shortly after speaking to the former hostages by telephone. They were emotional and in good health, he said.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, agreed to the handover after months of mediation by Chávez, a process which verged on fiasco and triggered furious rows between Venezuela's leader and Colombia's government.

On Wednesday the rebels notified Chávez, a fellow leftwinger whom they respect, that they would release the women in the south-eastern state of Guaviare bordering Venezuela. Colombia's armed forces agreed to temporarily suspend operations as the Red Cross helicopters flew to the rendezvous yesterday.

"It still seems like I'm kind of dreaming," said Rojas's elderly mother, Clara González de Rojas. "This is the biggest miracle my God could have ever given me. I'll be truly happy when I go with my daughter to retrieve my little grandson."

Rojas, 44, was running mate to the presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt when the two were kidnapped in February 2002. She gave birth to a baby boy named Emmanuel in 2004, reportedly after a liaison with one of her captors.

Mother and son, as well as Consuelo González, 57, who was abducted in September 2001, were due to be freed in late December. The deal collapsed when it emerged that the rebels did not have the boy. He had somehow been passed into the government's foster care system while he was still an infant and had been living in the capital, Bogotá.

That revelation shook the rebels' credibility and embarrassed Chávez's elaborate reception committee, which included the film director Oliver Stone. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, a conservative and unbending foe of the rebels, said it proved that Farc could not be trusted.

Yesterday's releases, conducted under the Red Cross aegis and without a media circus, should mend some fences between the two governments, said Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. "Uribe should get some credit for having successfully embarrassed Farc over the Emmanuele incident, and also for accommodating Chávez's efforts to secure the release. Chavez will save face and regain some standing as a leader committed to regional peace."

For the relatives of the two freed hostages waiting in a Caracas hotel the political wrangling was a sideshow to their joy and relief. All were expected to fly home to Bogotá later this week, where Rojas would be reunited with her son.

For the families of the other 750 hostages it was a bittersweet day, which intensified their longing. Many are being held for financial ransom, while 46 high-profile captives, including Betancourt and three US defence contractors, are being kept as political bargaining chips.

"This has to be the beginning of an effort that culminates with the release of all the "exchangeable" hostages and all the kidnap victims held for ransom," said a Colombian senator, Piedad Cordoba, who acted as a facilitator for Chávez.

Yesterday's breakthrough will renew pressure on Colombia's government to make concessions to secure other releases, said Román Ortiz, a security analyst in Bogotá. The fact that the rebels dropped their precondition for a demilitarised zone as a precursor to negotiations - a previous sticking point - put the ball in their court, he said. "They have to decide what they will demand now."


Rory Carroll in Caracas and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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