Venezuela’s Chavez says guerrillas should extend olive branch to Colombia’s new leader

By Christopher Toothaker, AP
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Chavez: Colombian rebels should release hostages

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez is urging Colombia’s rebels to release their hostages as a means of kick-starting negotiations with the country’s new president to end the South American nation’s armed conflict.

Chavez says the left-leaning Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army are mistaken in thinking they can seize power in Colombia through armed struggle.

“The Colombian guerrillas don’t have a future through the armed struggle,” Chavez said.

He urged rebel leaders to extend an olive branch to Juan Manuel Santos, who was sworn in Saturday as Colombia’s 59th president.

“Just as one proposes that Colombia’s government seek the path to peace, the guerrillas also must do it,” said Chavez, speaking during his weekly radio and television program.

Then he called on the rebels to release dozens of hostages held in camps located deep within Colombia’s jungles.

“Why do the guerrillas have people held hostage?” Chavez asked, suggesting they should not be using kidnapped Colombians to try to negotiate the release of imprisoned rebels.

Santos says he is unwilling to discuss peace with the FARC until it frees hostages, halts what he calls “terrorist acts” and stops recruiting child soldiers.

The Venezuelan leader’s comments Sunday appeared to be a show of support for Santos, who has expressed hope that a diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia will be resolved.

Colombia’s outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, opposed a swap of imprisoned rebels for hostages unless any guerrillas who were freed agreed to abandon the FARC.

Chavez repeatedly criticized Uribe for focusing on weakening the rebels through increased military action — a strategy that won the two-term president strong public support — instead of trying to negotiate with the guerrillas.

Diplomatic relations between Caracas and Bogota were particularly rocky during Uribe’s last year in office.

The socialist leader’s repeated spats with Uribe reached a climax last month: Chavez broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia after Uribe’s government presented the Organization of American States with video of alleged Colombian rebel camps in Venezuela.

Chavez denies that he’s allowed rebels to take refuge in Venezuelan territory, and the former paratroop commander says he’s instructed the military to confront members of any illegal armed group that slips into Venezuela.

Chavez reiterated Sunday that he wants to forge friendly relations with Colombia’s new government.

“We have much hope that the new government will begin to construct all that Uribe’s government destroyed,” he said.

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin met with her Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, on Sunday in Bogota to discuss efforts aimed at smoothing over the diplomatic conflict between the South American neighbors.

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