February 20, 2008

Friend of Hostages, or Friend of Hostage-Takers?

Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez has been deeply involved in recent months in trying to resolve the long-running standoff over hundreds of hostages held by Colombian rebels.

He was credited last month for gaining the release of two hostages, and he spoke last week with French President Nicolas Sarkozy about working to attain the release of more.

But new criticisms against Chavez say he is doing more harm than good — and a former hostage agrees.

Geologist Jorge Andres Sierra, who spent two years as a captive of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia’s second-largest leftist rebel group, said the Venezuelan government has provided safe haven to the guerillas.

Sierra’s remarks were reported by the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, as well as Spain’s EFE news agency, and published in English by the Hindustan Times.

“When Venezuelan military helicopters flew overhead, the pilots waved at the guerrillas. I yelled that I was kidnapped, but they told me that if I escape, the Venezuelan National Guard would hand me over to the ELN”, the Hindustan Times quoted Sierra as saying.

According to El Universal, the Colombian rebels have endorsed Chavez’s political ideas.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s government bristles at Chavez’s contact with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation’s largest rebel group.

Chavez has demanded that FARC be dropped from foreign registries of terrorist groups and considered instead as a legitimate insurgent group.

This week, Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said that Chavez’s stance is endangering negotiations to release more hostages.

“For the moment, we see a tougher position … motivated by the political space which President Hugo Chavez has tried to open for them,” Restrepo wrote in a statement, according to Reuters.

FARC is said to be holding as many as 750 hostages in jungle camps.

Among the most high profile is Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of dual Colombian and French citizenship who was kidnapped six years ago while campaigning for the presidency of Colombia.

Betancourt’s captivity has prompted France to become involved in the negotiations.

–Will Crain/Newsdesk.org

Sources:

“Colombia says Chavez bolsters rebels’ hostage stance”
Reuters, February 18, 2008

“Former hostage reports pact between rebels and Chavez”
El Universal, February 18, 2008

“Chavez talks with Sarkozy about Colombian prisoner swap”
Agence France Presse, February 15, 2008

“Freed Colombian hostage accuses Chavez of helping rebels”
Hindustan Times, February 18, 2008

For more background on the Colombia hostage situation:

“CHRONOLOGY-Hostage-taking in Colombia”
Reuters, January 14, 2008

“Q&A: Colombia hostage situation”
BBC News, January 14, 2008

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