Colombia: Uribe ends Chavez-led hostage negotiations

Late on November 21, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe put an end to the efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to achieve a humanitarian agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the release of FARC-held hostages in exchange for the freeing of FARC prisoners, Ingrid Betancourt, Senator Cordoba Piedad, Manuel Marulanda,

Following several months of negotiations, Uribe announced the end of the mediation efforts after Chavez made direct contact with the Colombian military command. Both the French government and the family of Ingrid Betancourt, a French national taken hostage by the FARC, expressed opposition to Uribe's decision.

Chavez and Colombian Senator Cordoba Piedad have carried out mediation efforts with the FARC at the request of the Colombian government since September. The immediate goal was the release of 49 hostages in the hands of FARC guerrillas, in exchange for the release of around 500 incarcerated guerrillas.

The mediation efforts began to make progress and led to a meeting between Chavez and high level FARC leaders in Caracas earlier this month. However Chavez insisted that a meeting with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda would be necessary, however Uribe refused to grant permission and promised to kill Marulanda if he came out of hiding.

Uribe placed new conditions on the negotiations in the lead-up to terminating them, demanding among other things that the FARC release the first group of hostages before any meeting could take place between the FARC leadership and the Venezuelan president.

But as Chavez returned from a visit to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the continuation of negotiations, Uribe released a statement putting a sudden end to the mediation efforts. The brief text of the statement, read by Colombia's Press Secretary Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, justified the decision to end mediation efforts because of a telephone conversation between Chavez and Mario Montoya, commander of the Colombian army.

According to the statement, Uribe had spoken to Chavez at the Ibero-Latin American summit in Chile earlier this month, telling him that he was opposed to Chavez speaking directly to the Colombian high military command. However, Uribe's advisor
Jose Obdulio Gaviria, admitted the dialogue between Chavez and Montoya was a brief greeting, and did not touch on compromising topics. Senator Cordoba has explained that the conversation didn't even lasted one minute.

Sarkozy expressed his opposition to the decision on November 22, urging Uribe to continue with the mediation efforts of Hugo Chavez as the best way to achieve the release of the hostages. Betancourt's family members also expressed their opposition to the decision and criticised Uribe for making a "drastic" decision. Betancourt's ex-husband Fabrice Delloye accused Uribe of not wanting a solution to the Colombian conflict, declaring: "He has demonstrated that he does not want a peaceful solution." Astrid Betancourt, sister of Ingrid, said "We had confidence in the work of Chavez and Cordoba, because it is the only viable alternative".

Kiraz Janicke wrote in a November 23 article that the decision generated widespread criticism in Colombia: "Families of the hostages reacted with shock and indignation as they gathered outside the presidential palace in Bogota to protest Uribe's announcement with banners and T-shirts emblazoned with calls for peace talks and shouting for Chavez's return."

The Venezuelan information ministry released a statement on November 22, in which said that Venezuela "accepts this sovereign decision of the Colombian government, but expresses its frustration because in this way a process is being aborted that was moving along ... in the midst of great difficulties, having obtained in merely three months important advances." The statement explained that Venezuela will continue to offer its services to achieve peace.

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