VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia – With its fearsome record of kidnapping and violence, Colombia's largest guerrilla army might seem a nightmare group to encounter. But not to Oliver Stone.
The American filmmaker is jumping at a chance to meet with a group the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization.
Leaving the glamor of Hollywood far behind, Stone arrived in the steamy Colombian city of Villavicencio on Saturday as part of a mission led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to retrieve three hostages held for years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"I have no illusions about the FARC, but it looks like they are a peasant army fighting for a decent living," Stone said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at his hotel bar. "And here, if you fight, you fight to win."
Stone is part of an international delegation expected to fly by helicopter as early as Sunday into the country's eastern jungles, an area the size of France, to collect the captives: former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her young son Emmanuel, who was fathered by one of her guerrilla captors.
When asked if he's concerned the heavily armed guerrillas could turn on him, he joked: "Well, if they took us, they would be swapping three hostages for 10," referring to himself and observers from six Latin America countries, France and Switzerland, along to supervise the release. "If I were them, that would make sense.
"But seriously, no, I'm not worried. The FARC knows there would be universal condemnation if they did that," said Stone, whose arrival has ramped up the media circus that already surrounds the pending handover.
More than 150 journalists have camped out in Villavicencio's airport since Thursday, waiting for the rescue operation to begin.
The mission seemed unlikely to be completed Sunday as originally promised by Venezuela, as rescuers were still awaiting word from the rebels on the exact location of the release. Meanwhile a rocket narrowly missed an air force cargo plane as it was landing in southern Colombia, underscoring the difficulties involved in crossing live battle lines.
The famous director's presence in this violent country, struggling through its fifth decade of civil conflict, is a worry to his Colombian and Venezuelan guides. They prohibited him from leaving his hotel in Villavicencio, a town rocked in recent years by turf battles between rival drug traffickers and far-right death squads.
Chavez personally invited Stone to join the rescue delegation after the pair, who say they are mutual admirers, met for the first time earlier this week in Caracas.
Dispatching rescue helicopters from Venezuela on Friday, Chavez joked that Stone was U.S. President George W. Bush's emissary to the operation, while Stone called Chavez "a great man."
The hostage release could improve prospects for hundreds of other rebel-held captives, Stone said, including three U.S. defense contractors whose four-year confinement he said he has closely followed.
"This release could be a new start, a break in the ice — and the release has been well-propelled forward by Chavez," said Stone. "The important thing is that we build momentum so everyone can be released."
The mission also gives Stone a chance to get the lay of Colombia's political landscape for two upcoming movies.
Footage from the liberation will form part of a documentary on "North America, and that includes our relations with South America and people like Chavez and Castro," he said, without giving details.
He is also producing of one of two rival Hollywood biopics about Pablo Escobar, history's most infamous cocaine trafficker, who was gunned down in 1993 after a bloody war against the Colombian state.
The movie, which Stone hopes to film in Colombia, is based loosely on a book by Escobar's brother, Roberto.
"Escobar is still very controversial. Many people hate him but many people love him," said Stone, who first rendered the drug-smuggling underworld as a screenwriter for "Midnight Express" and "Scarface." "To some, he was this Robin Hood figure, giving money to the poor."