Colombian FARC Rebels Release Four Hostages to Venezuelan Officials

Colombian rebels freed four lawmakers Wednesday after six years of captivity, the guerrillas' second hostage release this year as they seek to persuade the international community to strike them from lists of terrorist groups.

The four former Colombian politicians were reunited with relatives amid tears, hugs and grasped flowers at Caracas' international airport.

"You've given me the opportunity to live again," freed hostage Gloria Polanco said when she was freed in a Colombian jungle clearing, thanking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for making the release possible.

The freed captives later met at the presidential palace with Chavez, who gave them a warm welcome next to troops standing at attention.

In a video of the handover, officials who were sent to pick up the four in helicopters walked down a path and spotted the captives awaiting them on a rise. The hostages descended an incline and wept as they hugged those sent for them. Polanco received flowers from a female guerrilla and sobbed "thank you, thank you."

The video of the handover was broadcast by the Caracas-based TV channel Telesur.

A guerrilla commander who spoke in the video was asked if the group was bombed by the Colombian military. He said that after his group received the hostages, no.

"But yes, troops were very close and that prevented them from being freed much earlier," he said, without specifying when his unit assumed control of the hostages.

The rebels handed over the four to the international Red Cross and a top official from Chavez's government. Two Venezuelan helicopters flew them to a Venezuelan border town, and then they flew on to their families in Caracas.

Polanco's three grown sons ran toward the plane as soon as it pulled up, with flowers in hand and wearing T-shirts reading: "Freedom for all." Polanco said seeing them again after more than six years was the happiest moment of her life.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has proposed trading some 40 high-value captives — including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors — for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.

Another of the freed hostages, former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, said he last saw Betancourt on Feb. 4 and that she was in very poor shape.

"It's a question of time. We need to take immediate action to obtain Ingrid's liberation," he said.

"I don't know how I managed to survive," said Perez, "I had a heart attack, three diabetic comas. I've had all the tropical diseases there are."

Though some of the hostages were said to be ailing, top Chavez aide Jesse Chacon said their health "is much more satisfactory than we had hoped."

Another freed hostage, former Sen. Jorge Gechem, was gaunt and reportedly suffered in captivity from heart, back and ulcer problems.

"You've saved us practically from death," another freed hostage, former Rep. Orlando Beltran, said in the video, thanking Chavez.

In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the liberation provides "powerful encouragement" toward finding a "humanitarian solution to the hostage drama." Betancourt is a dual French citizen and a cause celebre in much of Europe.

Kouchner vowed to press for the freedom of the remaining captives, saying "the survival of the weakest hostages ... is in effect at stake."

Chavez's intercession in Colombia's long-running conflict — and the hostage releases it has reaped — has raised the profile of the FARC, as it seeks to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of international terrorist groups.

The FARC has been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, but has in recent years drawn wide reproach for its methods: It kidnaps civilians for ransom and funds itself largely through cocaine trafficking. Colombia's government says it holds more than 700 people, either for ransom or political reasons.

The four hostages were freed in the same region of Colombia's southern Guaviare state where the FARC released two other politicians on Jan. 10: Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez.

The operations to pickup the hostages have been overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Two of Polanco's three sons were kidnapped together with her and later released in 2004 after a ransom was paid. Her husband was later murdered, allegedly by the FARC.

As she held the flowers in the video, she said: "I will lay these flowers at my husband's grave, and another stem for each one of my sons."

Her youngest son, Daniel Polanco, who was 11 when Polanco was kidnapped, told Colombia's Caracol radio that he and his brothers bought their mother flowers, balloons, two or three changes of clothes and cosmetics "so she can be pretty."

The FARC thanked Chavez for his mediation efforts in a statement on a pro-rebel Web site.

After last month's release, Chavez called on the international community to recognize the rebels as a legitimate armed opposition group, rather than calling them terrorists.