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Colombia Cautious About Rebel Plan to Free Hostages

Colombian officials say they remain cautious after leftist rebels said they will release three hostages to Venezuela's government. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez said this was a vindication of his role in the peace process, which Colombia ended last month. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report.

Colombia's Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo welcomed the announcement by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But he called for caution among relatives of the hostages, noting that the leftist group has failed to fulfill its word in the past.

Restrepo said the government has no way to verify the announcement made by FARC leaders, and officials want to be very prudent for the sake of families and the Colombian public.

Cuban news agency Prensa Latina said it received an email from rebel leaders claiming they would hand over three hostages, but only to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez or one of his emissaries. It said those released would include a former congresswoman, an aide to former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, and her young son.

In August, Colombia's government asked Mr. Chavez to negotiate with rebel leaders to release some of their hostages in exchange for freeing FARC members jailed in Colombia. But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ended Mr. Chavez's participation last month, saying he had improper contact with Colombia's military chief.

Mr. Chavez has criticized his Colombian counterpart for the move, and said it may have diminished chances for the release of many more hostages. But he said the FARC announcement was welcome news.

Mr. Chavez said his government is now looking at how to receive the hostages when they are released. He said he remains hopeful he can liberate all of those kidnapped by FARC rebels and all guerrilla soldiers who are in prison.

The involvement of Mr. Chavez in Colombia's peace process over the past few months has generated new interest in the region and elsewhere about the FARC hostages. Adam Isacson, head of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, says the attention may have swayed the FARC to agree to a deal.

"I think the FARC were just starving for international recognition," he said.

France's government also has been trying to encourage an agreement between Colombia's government and FARC rebels, because Ingrid Betancourt has French citizenship. This week, French officials offered to take in FARC members released from jail, as part of the peace process.

Isacson said such a deal to send large numbers of rebels to another country would mark a precedent in Colombia's efforts to end decades of violence. But he said rebel leaders would likely oppose it at any future peace talks.

"When they finally get to the negotiating table, the FARC is going to insist in their fighters being allowed to rejoin the FARC," he said. "One reason they are pressing for their release is to get these experienced cadres back in the ranks."

Mr. Uribe's government has offered the FARC a 60-square-kilometer area where the two sides could come together unarmed to discuss the exchange of prisoners.