Colombia again attempts hostage handover

An airborne operation to pluck two hostages from their rebel captors deep in the Colombian jungle lurched back to life on Thursday, after a botched handover attempt collapsed 10 days ago.

Two Venezuelan helicopters departed for Colombia at dawn, Irma Alvarez, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in Caracas.

Later the white-and-orange choppers, emblazoned with the ICRC emblem, arrived in the small city of San Jose del Guaviare in south-eastern Colombia at about 1.24pm GMT. From there, they were to travel to a secret handover location in the jungle, top officials of both governments said late on Wednesday.

Bogota ordered all other flights over the region suspended, and halted military operations in the area, officials said.

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the two women captives could be with their families by nightfall, while an ICRC spokesperson in Bogota said he could neither confirm nor deny a handover would take place on Thursday.

“That depends on the logistical organisation of the humanitarian mission, on weather conditions and other factors,” Yves Heller said. “We will do it as quickly as possible.”

An earlier handover attempt failed in late December amid dramatic revelations that rebels no longer had in their custody one of hostages slated for release—a three-year-old boy born in captivity.

Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has acted as a mediator in this case, said on Wednesday he had finally received from Colombian rebels the coordinates of a secret spot where the boy’s mother, Clara Rojas (44), and former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez (57) were to be set free.

The handover is to take place somewhere in Guaviare or Vaupes, two jungle departments in southern Colombia rife with fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and illegal coca plantations.

Confirming that Bogota had approved Chávez’s new handover plan, Colombian peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said the two governments, which have had tense relations, were in close coordination this time around.

“There is a good spirit of collaboration between the two countries and we are now making progress on operational steps that will permit—with the greatest speed—- the liberation” of the two women, Restrepo said on Wednesday.

The two are part of a group of more than 40 hostages—including Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three US nationals—that the Farc wants to exchange for 500 rebels held by the Colombian government.

Rojas was managing Betancourt’s presidential campaign when rebels captured the two in February 2002.
Gonzalez was captured in 2001.

Colombia was gripped in 2006 by reports that Rojas had given birth to a baby boy, Emmanuel, in a jungle camp, after an allegedly consensual relation with a guerrilla fighter. The birth was first reported by a Colombian journalist, who cited the Farc’s top commander, and later confirmed by an escaped hostage who said he had seen the boy.

In December, the Farc offered to release Gonzalez, Rojas and her son to Chávez, who had been trying to mediate the hostage swap between Bogota and the rebels but was formally dropped from the role by President Alvaro Uribe in November.

With Bogota’s grudging consent, Chávez choreographed an elaborate handover and on December 28, aircraft, journalists and international observers from seven countries—including Switzerland and France—flocked to Colombia.

But the handover stalled when the Farc failed to inform Chávez of the handover location, then collapsed on December 31 with Uribe’s bombshell revelation that the boy was actually at a state-run orphanage in Bogota.

A suspected Farc go-between sought protection from Colombian police in late December, saying the Farc was threatening to kill him if he did not return a boy they had given him in 2005, who was subsequently seized by social services on suspicion of child abuse.

The tip enabled Colombian authorities to track down the boy, and DNA tests conducted in Colombia and Spain using samples from Rojas’s mother and brother have confirmed that the youngster is indeed her son.—Sapa-AFP

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