Venezuelan helicopters fly to free hostages

Two Venezuelan helicopters flew into Colombia on Wednesday to pick up four lawmakers held hostage for years in jungle camps by Marxist rebels, in a diplomatic victory for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

The white helicopters painted with the symbol of the Red Cross left a military base close to the border and flew into neighbouring Colombia, where the rebels are holding the three men and one woman.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) last month released two politicians in a deal brokered by the leftist Chávez, who has spent months in talks with the leaders of Latin America’s oldest guerrilla insurgency.

But after close initial cooperation, Chávez and Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe have bickered over the anti-United States leader’s mediation efforts.

The hostages to be released on Wednesday are lawmakers Gloria Polanco de Losada, Luis Eladio Perez, Orlando Beltran and Jorge Gechem, who is believed to be in poor health.

Winning their release would be another victory for Chávez, who angered Uribe and Washington by demanding political recognition for the Farc, which the US and the European Union label a cocaine-smuggling terrorist group.

US Republican representatives accuse Chávez of being soft on drug and gun-running across the porous border with Colombia and allowing Farc rebels to take refuge in his country. The rebels and their right-wing paramilitary enemies have for years slipped into Venezuela for respite from battles at home.

The release would also raise hopes for a broader deal to free dozens more hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans whose plight has drawn attention to captives held for years by the Farc.

The guerrilla fighters hold hundreds of hostages captured for ransom and political leverage in their four-decade war with the state.

The rebels, who say they are fighting for social justice, want to swap their hostages for fellow fighters imprisoned by the Colombian government.

The recent releases have been unilateral and are described by the fighters as a gesture of goodwill to Chávez, who hopes to broker a wider peace deal, although analysts say that is unlikely.—Reuters

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