Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday urged Colombian rebels to lay down their weapons, unilaterally free dozens of hostages and end a decades-long armed struggle.
Chavez sent the uncharacteristic message to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), saying their 44-year effort to overthrow a succession of democratically elected Colombian governments is no longer justified.
“The guerrilla war is history,” Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. “At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.”
Such declarations were unexpected from Chavez, who has long been accused of giving the rebels refuge. A self-described socialist, he urged other countries to remove the FARC from terrorist lists earlier this year, suggesting the group is in fact a legitimate insurgency.
Colombia’s government claims that a laptop recovered from a FARC camp in March showed a history of deep collaboration between the rebels and Chavez — something the Venezuelan leader denies.
But addressing FARC’s new leader Alfonso Cano on Sunday, Chavez said: “I think the time has come for the FARC to free everyone they have in the mountains. It would be a great, humanitarian gesture, in exchange for nothing.”
FARC has said it would be willing to swap hostages for guerrillas held in Colombia and the US.
Carlos Lozano, who has mediated between the government and rebels, told Caracol radio on Sunday that he had re-established contact with the FARC in hope of facilitating the release of more hostages.
Lozano, editor of a communist newspaper, said that while he had not spoken directly with Cano, “everything is going the right way.”
Yet a FARC statement posted on Sunday on a Web site sympathetic to its cause suggested the group is far from laying down its arms.
Written by rebel leader Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Ivan Marquez,” and dated June 5, the statement demands that new elections be called to oust Colombia’s government and Congress.
The FARC’s “strategic objective is the taking of power for the people,” the statement said.
It also said that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has backed plans to kill Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.