Fri, Nov 23, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Chavez dropped from Colombia talks

HOSTAGES The Venezuelan president spoke to a Colombian general in violation of a key request by Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe. The move may end hopes of a deal

AP , BOGOTA

Colombia's government said on Wednesday that it was canceling Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's mediation role with leftist rebels in a possible hostage swap, dealing a blow to efforts to free three kidnapped US contractors and a former presidential candidate.

The decision came after Chavez, who began mediating an exchange in August with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's permission, spoke to Colombia's army chief in defiance of an order not to talk directly to military leaders on the issue, presidential spokesman Cesar Mauricio Velasquez said.

Chavez spoke by telephone with General Mario Montoya earlier on Wednesday about the state of hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Velasquez said at a hastily convened press conference.

Velasquez said the leftist Colombian senator serving as a go-between in the talks, Piedad Cordoba, telephoned Montoya and passed the phone to Chavez.

Cordoba's mediation role was also being canceled, he said.

Velasquez did not say why Uribe demanded Chavez not speak to Colombian military officials.

FARC is Latin America's most potent rebel army and holds some 45 high-value hostages, including three US military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who is a dual Colombian-French national and has become a cause celebre in France following her nearly six years in captivity.

For their release, the FARC is demanding the government release all imprisoned rebels, who number in the hundreds.

Families of the kidnapped had supported Chavez's intervention, saying any deal to be made was "now or never."

The decision to end Chavez's mediation is likely to prove a severe setback for any talks between the rebels and Colombia's president, who share a strong mutual dislike. Uribe's father was killed by FARC rebels nearly two decades ago. The conservative president, in turn, has tenaciously attempted to defeat the guerrilla army with a US-backed military.

Chavez hosted a top FARC leader in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on Nov. 8.

But FARC has so far failed to produce proof of life for any of the high-value hostages, as sought by Colombia and the US.

At a military ceremony in Bogota earlier on Wednesday, US Ambassador William Brownfield said that Washington was disappointed that the recent diplomacy has yielded few results.

The decision by Colombia's government follows a series of Chavez statements that clearly annoyed Uribe.

On Monday, Chavez said Uribe had told him he was prepared to meet with aging FARC leader Manuel Marulanda. In response, Uribe said those comments were made in confidence and placed a Dec. 31 time limit on Chavez's mediation efforts.

As late as Wednesday afternoon, however, Colombian officials were praising Chavez's role.

"Chavez is playing an excellent role and for that we are grateful," said Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government's chief peace negotiator.

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