CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that he hopes three hostages will be freed by Colombian rebels within hours, and that Venezuela has planes and helicopters ready to pick them up inside Colombia if the U.S.-backed government allows them in.
"The only thing we need is the authorization of the Colombian government," Chavez said at a news conference in the presidential palace. "We are ready to activiate the humanitarian operation." Chavez said he hoped it would be completed "in the coming hours."
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A spokesman for Colombia's foreign minister said the government had no official reaction yet.
With Colombian government approval for Venezuelan aircraft to cross the border, Chavez said he hopes hostages could be freed by day's end on Thursday. They include former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas — an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — and Rojas' young son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter.
Chavez said that Venezuelan planes and helicopters — some already marked with Red Cross insignia — are ready to fly into Colombia to pick up the hostages. Rojas and Gonzalez have been held for about six years by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"All we need is the authorization from the Colombian government to turn on the green light," Chavez said.
Chavez said the Venezuelan pilots would not be told exactly where they were going until they are in the air, for security reasons.
"We don't want to wait another day," Chavez said, adding that he hopes the three are able to "ring in the year 2008" with their families.
Chavez said his proposal has received backing from the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba, France and Brazil. He also said Argentine President Cristina Fernandez had expressed willingness to fly in to help if necessary.
Chavez said he hopes another group of hostages would later be freed, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
The release of these initial three hostages would be the most important in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers it had held captive. It would also be the highest-profile hostage release during the presidency of Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002.
The announcement last week by Colombia's largest leftist rebel group that it would hand over the three hostages to Venezuela's socialist leader gave Chavez's involvement as a mediator a boost.
Uribe's government publicly ended the Venezuelan leader's role last month, saying Chavez had overstepped his authority to negotiate a prisoners-for-hostages swap by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army.
Chavez has since frozen relations with the U.S.-allied Uribe, whom he accuses of caving to pressure from Washington. The planned release directly to Chavez shows both the rebels' affinity for the leftist president and the wide gap between the FARC and the Colombian government.