Venezuela's Chavez to meet with Colombia's new leader this week seeking to restore relations

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A bitter diplomatic faceoff between Venezuela and Colombia over allegations President Hugo Chavez let leftist rebels take refuge in his country — a dispute that has seen stinging insults and talk of possible war — could be cooling now that power has shifted in Colombia.

Chavez and Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, plan to take the first step toward restoring relations between the South American neighbors Tuesday when they sit down together in Colombia, their foreign ministers announced Sunday.

Both leaders have said they desire friendly and mutually respectful diplomatic ties, a sharp contrast to the acrimonious relations between Chavez and Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said the presidents' meeting will try to smooth over the conflict that boiled over last month when Chavez severed diplomatic ties with Uribe's government.

"We've taken this first step ... with the objective being the reestablishment of relations between the two countries," Holguin said at a joint appearance in Bogota with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro.

Chavez broke off ties after Uribe's government presented the Organization of American States with video of alleged Colombian rebel camps in Venezuela and demanded that Chavez's administration investigate the allegations. Chavez refused and accused Uribe of lying about the alleged guerrilla presence, accusing the Colombian of plotting to attack Venezuela.

Chavez denies he has given haven to Colombian rebels, and the former paratroop commander says he has instructed his military to confront members of any illegal armed group that slips into his country.

Venezuela's leader reiterated Sunday that he wants to forge friendly relations with Colombia following Santos' inauguration Saturday.

"We have much hope that the new government will begin to construct all that Uribe's government destroyed," Chavez said.

In Colombia, Santos told reporters he hoped that at "this meeting we can draw conclusions that lead us to normalize relations between the two countries." He did not reveal where the two leaders would meet.

Earlier Sunday, Chavez urged Colombia's rebels to release their hostages as a means of kick-starting negotiations with Santos on ending the nation's decades-long armed conflict. His comments appeared to be a show of support for Santos.

"Just as one proposes that Colombia's government seek the path to peace, the guerrillas also must do it," said Chavez.

Then he called on the rebels to release dozens of hostages held in camps located deep within Colombia's jungles.

"Why do the guerrillas have people held hostage?" Chavez asked, suggesting they should not be using kidnapped Colombians to try to negotiate the release of imprisoned rebels.

Santos says he is unwilling to discuss peace with the left-leaning Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, until it frees hostages, halts what he calls "terrorist acts" and stops recruiting child soldiers.

Uribe opposed a swap of imprisoned rebels for hostages unless any guerrillas who were freed agreed to abandon the FARC — Colombia's largest insurgent group.

Chavez repeatedly criticized Uribe for focusing on weakening the rebels through increased military action — a strategy that won the two-term president strong public support — instead of trying to negotiate with the guerrillas.

Chavez said the rebels are mistaken in thinking they can seize power in Colombia through armed struggle.

"The Colombian guerrillas don't have a future through the armed struggle," he said.


Associated Press Writer Carlos Alberto Gonzalez in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.