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Chavez Pardons Colombian Prisoners Accused in Plot


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has pardoned 41 Colombians imprisoned in Venezuela on charges of involvement in an alleged plot against his government in 2004.

The order to free the prisoners appeared Thursday in the government's official journal.

The Colombians imprisoned were suspected of belonging to a paramilitary group.

The order comes one day before President Chavez is scheduled to travel to Colombia to try to jumpstart talks aimed at freeing about 45 hostages held by leftist rebels for years in Colombian jungles.

Mr. Chavez has offered to speak with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whose hostages include French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who is a former presidential candidate, and three Americans.

A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the French leader assured Mr. Chavez in a phone conversation Wednesday of his support to win the release of Betancourt and the other hostages.

The FARC has demanded that Colombian troops demilitarize an area in the southwestern part of the country ahead of any talks, but Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has refused any territorial concessions.

President Chavez has offered Venezuela as an alternative site for talks. The FARC has welcomed Mr. Chavez's efforts but says any hostage handover has to occur in Colombia.

Colombia has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates.