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Venezuela to Begin Colombia Hostage Release Operation

Venezuela is preparing to launch an operation to pick up three hostages held by leftist rebels in eastern Colombia's jungle region, but the Red Cross says the handover will not take place Friday.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said airplanes and helicopters bearing the Red Cross symbol will fly across the border into Colombia, where pilots will receive instructions from rebel leaders about where to pick up the hostages.

Mr. Chavez said the three would be freed on Friday, but a senior Red Cross official (Barbara Hintermann of the International Committee of the Red Cross) said the Red Cross does not carry out nighttime operations for security reasons and that the helicopters were unlikely to reach them on Friday.

The hostages are former Colombian lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez, former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her young son, Emmanuel, fathered by one of her guerrilla captors. They are being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Argentina's former president, Nestor Kirchner, and officials from other Latin American nations are in Venezuela to serve as international observers. Mr. Chavez said he planned the mission with the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and France.

The FARC said earlier this month it would release the captives to President Chavez, or someone he designates. On Wednesday, Colombia agreed to allow Mr. Chavez to send planes and helicopters into its territory to pick up the three hostages.

Colombia also thanked President Chavez for his government's efforts.

President Chavez was involved in hostage negotiations until Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ended the effort last month, saying the Venezuelan leader had overstepped his role as a mediator. Mr. Chavez responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Colombia.

The FARC has demanded the release of hundreds of rebels held in Colombian prisons, in return for freeing several high-profile hostages.

The three who are to be released are among 40 such hostages held by the FARC. They include former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped with Rojas in February 2002, and three Americans who were seized in 2003 after their plane went down in Colombia during a counter-narcotics mission.

Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.