Venezuela Prepares for Secretive Mission to Retrieve Colombia Hostages

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began a delicate operation on Friday to pluck three hostages from rebel-held areas of the Colombian jungle — a process shrouded in secrecy by the guerrilla insurgency.

Chavez is calling the mission "Operation Emmanuel," after the captive child who is believed to be the son of hostage Clara Rojas and a guerrilla fighter.

"We hope to rescue and liberate them in the coming hours," Chavez said Friday, wearing the red beret of his army days as he addressed troops in Caracas.

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By special arrangement with Colombia's U.S.-allied government, Venezuela is sending two Russian-made MI-17 helicopters to still unidentified spots in the jungle to pick up former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Rojas and the boy, who is thought to be 3 years old.

On board will be international observers from France, Switzerland and six Latin American countries, including former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Colombia's top peace negotiator and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Chavez planned to personally inspect the helicopters Friday afternoon before they depart the western Venezuelan town of Santo Domingo for the central Colombian city of Villavicencio, which is to be the air base for coordinating the operation.

The secrecy surrounding the time and location of the handover, now expected sometime over the weekend, reflects the mistrust of both sides in Colombia's civil conflict. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been fighting for more than four decades, and its guerrillas are dispersed in remote camps in the jungles and countryside.

For security reasons, Chavez said, the rebels have demanded that Venezuelan pilots not be told where they will fly ahead of time. Also, he said, the guerrillas may provide multiple potential rendezvous points.

Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped along with the French-Colombian politician nearly six years ago. The pending release has raised hopes for relatives of Betancourt and dozens of other high-profile hostages, including three American defense contractors.

Thanking Chavez for his efforts, relatives of the three hostages flew to Venezuela on Thursday in hopes of finally being reunited.

Emmanuel's grandmother, Clara Gonzalez de Rojas, told state television: "I hope to have him in my arms."

FARC's decision to release the hostages to Chavez has enabled the socialist leader to reassume a mediating role Colombian President Alvaro Uribe abruptly ended last month after accusing him of overstepping his mandate. Chavez said he now hopes to broaden this role and take "a first step to open a door toward the path for Colombia to have peace soon."

The lengthy process of coordinating the release reflects the logistical complications of communicating between isolated groups of rebels and hostages in remote jungle areas.

Because the Colombian government has sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities backed by more than US$600 million (euro400 million) in annual U.S. military aid, the rebels have limited their use of communication technology and contacts with the outside world.

Human couriers were used to send out "proof-of-life" videos and letters last month from Betancourt, the three Americans and other hostages. Colombia's government caught the messengers, seizing the videos and letters. Chavez later complained the materials were intended to reach him but the delivery was sabotaged for political reasons.

Chavez has accused Uribe of caving to pressure from Washington, and on Friday denounced the U.S. government as "imperialist," a position shared by the Colombian rebels.

While turning over the hostages, the FARC will try to give away as little information as possible about the location of its fighters, said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota think tank.

The guerrillas "above all are going to make sure to prevent this operation — or information that could be deduced about them — from being used militarily by the government," said Rangel, who predicted that the captives will be delivered far from the camps where they were held.