CARACAS – The day after Christmas was a time of agonizing waiting for the families of hostages held by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, who promised to release three of the captives within the next few days.
A bold international operation presented by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to ensure the safe release of Colombian politicians Consuelo González and Clara Rojas, and the latter’s young son Emmanuel, was accepted by the Colombian government.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Colombian government announced that it “authorized the humanitarian mission under the terms” that had been proposed by Chávez a few hours earlier.
Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo said the government’s representative in the operation would be Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, with whom the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have an antagonistic relationship.
In a statement read out by Araújo in the Defense Ministry, the government said that the aircraft used “in this humanitarian mission must carry the symbol of the International Red Cross.”
Patricia Perdomo, Consuelo González’s daughter, told IPS that “I am sure it will all come off just fine, because everything is ready.” She added that “I once again express my gratitude to President Hugo Chávez, Senator Piedad Córdoba, and of course the Colombian government.”
In a statement dated Dec. 9 and published Dec. 18 by the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, the FARC announced that they would free González, Rojas and Emmanuel as a unilateral gesture of appreciation for the mediation efforts of Chávez and opposition Senator Córdoba, which were abruptly cut short by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe on Nov. 21.
Córdoba had been appointed by Uribe to broker negotiations of a humanitarian exchange of 45 hostages held by the FARC for around 500 imprisoned guerrillas, and had enlisted Chávez’s support. Uribe’s unexpected decision triggered a major diplomatic row between the two countries.
Chávez’s proposed formula for the release was delivered to the Colombian Foreign Ministry by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro at the same time that the Venezuelan leader held a press conference in Caracas.
The humanitarian airlift will involve Venezuelan small planes and helicopters carrying the Red Cross symbol, which will set out from up to five airports in Venezuela near the Colombian border on the way to the airport in the city of Villavicencio, 90 km south of Bogotá.
The aircraft will carry high-profile emissaries directly named by the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, France and Venezuela, and representatives of the Red Cross, said Chávez.
The emissaries will include former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner and Marco Aurelio García, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s influential foreign adviser.
In Villavicencio, the emissaries will make contact with the FARC, who will take them to the place where the hostages will be released. Under the conditions set by the guerrillas, the exact location in the jungle will remain secret a requirement that Chávez, as a retired military officer, said he understood.
Once they are taken to the airstrip in Villavicencio, the hostages will board aircraft fully equipped to deal with any health emergency, and from there will be flown to Venezuela, where they will be met by Chávez.
“From the very moment we received the news that the FARC had decided to release Clara, Consuelo and Emmanuel, we began to work intensely, but with great patience,” said the Venezuelan leader.
The speed with which events moved ahead Wednesday could indicate that the operation had already spent a good deal of time in the planning stage. In fact, Chávez reiterated what he had said Dec. 18: that he knew about the FARC’s offer several days before it was made public.
Colombian analyst Alfredo Rangel, an expert in military affairs and the head of the Security and Democracy Foundation, described the operation as “overly ostentatious and undoubtedly aimed at drawing major international attention.”
“I expected the FARC to turn over the hostages in Venezuela,” because the guerrillas “cross back and forth over the border every day. It’s an extremely porous border,” he told IPS.
“But the underlying question lies in the details of the proposal that the Venezuelan government delivered to the Colombian government. Those details are key to the viability of the operation, and are unknown to the public,” he added.
When he announced his proposal, Chávez said there were several “details” that he had reserved for Uribe.
Before receiving the green light from Bogotá, the Venezuelan leader said that “if the answer is no, we will be forced to resort to a clandestine plan.” But he clarified that under no circumstances would Colombia’s national sovereignty be violated an indication that FARC representatives would have had to bring the hostages to the border.
However, according to Chávez, if the Uribe administration accepted the proposal immediately, as it did, everything was ready for the operation to go ahead within the next few hours.
“I cannot confirm or deny” that possibility, Red Cross spokesman in Colombia Yves Heller told IPS.
“We are starting to organize the logistical aspects,” he said. “We are going to request full safety guarantees from all of the concerned parties, but it is very hard to say whether the operation can be carried out tomorrow.”
“We are in the first stage of the operation, and we have to be very careful. But we are moving in the right direction,” he said, adding that the hostages have been “living in very difficult conditions.”
Rojas, the running-mate of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was captured with her in 2002. During her time in captivity in the jungle she gave birth to Emmanuel, the product of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter.
Former congresswoman González was kidnapped in 2001.
“This is a unilateral gesture by the guerrillas, but at the same time it is a signal sent to the government and to the world that the FARC are willing to negotiate,” Juan Carlos Lecompte, Betancourt’s husband, told IPS.
“I hope the government understands this goodwill gesture” and “immediately allows negotiations of the longed-for humanitarian exchange, for which we have been fighting for nearly six years, so the release of the rest of the hostages can be secured,” he said. Some of them have spent 10 years in captivity.
Three of the hostages are US military contractors who were seized while taking part in the US-financed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.
Heller said “all of the parties are well-disposed. We are in contact with the governments of Colombia and Venezuela, and with the FARC, to carry out the operation with all of the necessary safety guarantees.”
Villavicencio is the capital of the central province of Meta, an area of fierce fighting between the army and the FARC, and where rival drug trafficking gangs each have their own irregular armies.