Colombian hostage-rescue deal crumbles

A delicate mission to free three hostages held by Colombian guerrillas appeared to collapse on Monday as the government and rebel leaders accused each other of trying to kill the deal.

The Venezuela-led plan to pick up two women hostages and a child born to one of them in captivity has been repeatedly delayed since last Thursday and rebel leaders said intense army operations in the jungle region made it impossible for now.

“In these conditions it would put in grave risk the lives of these people to free them,” the rebels said in a letter sent to Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chávez, who had negotiated the deal for the release of the three hostages.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe rejected the allegation and accused rebel commanders of inventing excuses.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, promised earlier this month to deliver the three to Chávez, and he sent two helicopters to this town deep inside Colombia last Friday to pick them up.

Chávez read out the FARC’s letter explaining its failure to say where the hostages were, and he accused Uribe of sabotaging his rescue plan.

“Uribe went to dynamite the third phase of this operation,” Chávez said, adding that independent reports also pointed to an intensification of Colombian military activity in the area.

Foreign envoys, including former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, had gone to Colombia to help the mission but flew back to Caracas on Monday night, although Chávez said his helicopters would stay.

“Unless we are thrown out of Colombia, we will stay,” he said, adding that he was in contact with the guerrillas and still hoped they would tell him where the hostages were.

Uribe, a conservative who has clashed repeatedly with Chávez, denied military operations had prevented the handover.

“The FARC terrorist group has no excuses. They have always used excuses to deceive Colombia and now they want to deceive the international community. They are lying,” he said in the central city of Villavicencio, where the Venezuelan helicopters waited to be dispatched for the handover.

He offered, however, to halt army patrols in an area designated by the FARC once they reveal the location of their captives.

The three hostages are Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her son, Emmanuel, who was fathered by a rebel fighter and is thought to be four years old.—Reuters

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