CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez prepared to send planes and helicopters into neighboring Colombia to pick up three hostages who have been held for years by leftist rebels.
The hostages' release would be the most important in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers it had captured and held.
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Chavez said Wednesday that he hoped the hostages — including a mother and her young son — could be on Venezuelan soil by sundown Thursday, while the international Red Cross said the release could take a few days.
Colombia's largest rebel group announced last week that it would unilaterally hand over the three hostages to Chavez, demonstrating the guerrillas' affinity for the socialist leader.
The release would be an international boon for Chavez, enabling the self-styled revolutionary to outshine Colombia's U.S.-backed president, Alvaro Uribe — with whom his relations have grown hostile — on the Colombian leader's own turf.
The three hostages are former Colombian 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 rebel fighter.
Gonzalez and Rojas have spent about six years held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while Emmanuel is thought to be about 3 years old.
Gonzalez's daughter, Maria Fernanda Perdomo, said she and other relatives planned to fly to Caracas on Thursday in hopes of finally being reunited with her mother.
Perdomo called it "a small light" for the families of 44 other high-profile hostages — including politicians, police officers and three American defense contractors.
Chavez said he hoped another batch would later be freed, including Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who has received an outpouring of support in France and other countries.
The Venezuelan leader met with officials at the presidential palace late Wednesday as they prepared for the hostage release, an official at Venezuela's Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said officials had begun "the long process of waiting to see what the FARC says, where the spot will be."
Colombia on Wednesday approved the mission proposed by Chavez. The plan was for Venezuelan aircraft marked with Red Cross insignia to fly to the central Colombian city of Villavicencio, about 50 miles south of Bogota, and then take off in helicopters to meet the rebels and hostages at an unknown spot. The pilots would not be told exactly where they were going until they are in the air, for security reasons, Chavez said.
The hostages would later be flown from Villavicencio to an airport in Venezuelan territory, according to a letter sent by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro to his Colombian counterpart, Fernando Araujo.
Chavez mentioned several Venezuelan airports near the border where the hostages could be brought, including La Fria, Guasdualito and Elorza.
The Venezuelan leader said he hopes the captives will be able to "ring in the year 2008" with their families.
Yves Heller, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bogota, said details were still being worked out. The release could be Thursday — "or it may take a few more days," he said.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched rebel kidnapping, has taken a hard line against the FARC. The two sides have failed to agree to terms for a proposed swap of other rebel-held captives for guerrillas jailed in Colombian and U.S. prisons.
Chavez was trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange before Uribe called him off last month, saying the Venezuelan had overstepped his mandate by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army. Chavez then froze relations with Uribe.
But the FARC's offer to release these three hostages as a goodwill gesture put Chavez back in the center of the Colombian standoff.
To facilitate their delivery from rebel-held territory inside Colombia, Chavez proposed a commission to monitor the process, with observers from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba, France and Brazil as well as Colombia, which appointed its top peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo.
Argentina said its delegate, former President Nestor Kirchner, was traveling to Caracas and then Villavicencio.