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Colombia prisoner swap in turmoil

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

BOGOTA, Colombia ” Colombia’s cancellation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s mediation with leftist rebels threw into disarray hopes for a prisoner swap that would free three U.S. military contractors and a former presidential candidate.

The decision, announced late Wednesday, took Colombians by surprise but followed a series of increasingly tense exchanges between Chavez and this country’s conservative president, Alvaro Uribe.

It also prompted an immediate appeal Thursday from France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, not to end the go-between role Chavez assumed in August.

Among the 45 hostages with lives in the balance is Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen seized in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia’s presidency.

The Venezuelan president defied Uribe by directly contacting Colombia’s army chief on Wednesday to discuss the issue, Uribe’s spokesman said in a hastily called late-night appearance.

The official, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, read a curt statement that also ended the mediation role of a leftist Colombian senator, Piedad Cordoba. The lawmaker had called the army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, and passed the phone to Chavez, the spokesman said.

There was no immediate comment from Uribe or Chavez. But a spokesman for Sarkozy, whom Chavez visited in Paris earlier this week to discuss the case, appealed to Uribe to reconsider.

“We continue to think that President Chavez is the best chance for freeing Ingrid Betancourt and all the other hostages,” David Martinon said Thursday in France.

The American hostages, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes, were taken by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in February 2003 after their small plane crashed in the jungle during a surveillance mission.

“Chavez was the best and only hope,” Gonsalves’ mother, Jo Rosano, told The Associated Press from her Connecticut home. “The FARC is at least trying. Uribe says he wants an agreement, but he is not to be trusted.”

Betancourt and the three Americans are valuable assets for the FARC, which has been fighting the government for more than four decades and is bankrolled chiefly by the cocaine trade.

For their release, Latin America’s most potent rebel force was demanding the government free all imprisoned guerrillas, who number in the hundreds.

Uribe had been cool to the FARC’s overtures ” and unwilling to agree to rebel conditions to create a safe haven for talks on a swap, preferring to try to rescue hostages militarily.

But when Chavez offered to mediate, he agreed.

Those efforts stumbled, however, when Chavez hosted a senior FARC commander in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on Nov. 8, and the rebels provided no proof of life for hostages, as demanded by the Colombian and U.S. governments.

“I think the FARC has left the entire world wondering if the hostages are dead or alive,” said Camilo Gomez, a former Colombian peace negotiator. He said the FARC, more than Uribe or Chavez, was to blame for the collapse of mediation, but he also faulted the Colombian government for emphasizing a military rather than a political solution.

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Associated Press writers Toby Muse and Carlos Gonzalez in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this story.


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