Visibly overcome with emotion, four former Colombian legislators — Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio Perez, Orlando Beltran and Jorge Eduardo Gechem — held prisoner by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for years, were reunited with their families in the Simon Bolivar International airport near Caracas on February 27 after a successful Venezuelan-led humanitarian mission.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who received the four ex-legislators in a brief welcome ceremony at Miraflores Presidential Palace, said that Venezuela would "continue searching for a thousand ways to liberate all the hostages, and beyond this towards peace in Colombia".
Beltran thanked the efforts of Chavez and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, whose mediation for a humanitarian exchange of 45 prisoners held by the FARC for 500 guerrillas held in Colombian jails, was terminated abruptly by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in November last year.
Perez exhorted Chavez to continue the struggle for a humanitarian exchange in order to achieve the liberation of all the captives, while at the same time commenting on the lack of solidarity shown by the Colombian government.
The mission to rescue the hostages, dubbed "Path to Peace" by Chavez, began the morning of February 27 with two Venezuelan helicopters, emblazoned with International Red Cross symbols, departing for Colombia. Venezuelan justice minister Ramon Rodriguez, Cordoba and four Red Cross representatives took part in the mission.
This is the second unilateral prisoner release by the FARC this year after two prisoners were handed over to Venezuelan authorities on January 10.
On February 2, the FARC announced its intention to liberate three more prisoners as a gesture aimed at apologising to Chavez for Uribe's termination of his role in negotiations. Days later, the FARC confirmed plans to liberate a fourth prisoner.
However, on February 13 the FARC said that the hostage release had been suspended due to Colombian military operations in the area. Then on February 25, the Venezuelan government announced it had received the coordinates for where the prisoners would be liberated.
The mission was escorted to the area by a battalion of 60 FARC guerrillas.
After being taken to Caracas, each of the hostages spoke, thanking Chavez and Cordoba and expressing hope that this new gesture by the guerrillas would open the path to a peace accord in Colombia — ending the more than four decade-long civil war.
Polanco said: "President Chavez, here is a Colombian that had lost all hope, I did not know if I would return alive, if I would see my sons, but thanks to God, the Virgin Mary, to you Chavez and to Piedad Cordoba, today I can embrace my children."
In a communique to Caracol Radio minutes after the prisoner relase took place, the FARC announced this would be the last unilateral prisoner handover and called on the Colombian government to remove the military from Florida and Pradera provinces and enter into a process of negotiations for a humanitarian prisoner exchange.
In a nationally televised announcement, Uribe welcomed the release of the prisoners and stated: "We want to thank the efforts made by the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, the honorable Senator Piedad Cordoba for this unilateral and unconditional liberation, and to thank also the Venezuelan government."
However, Telesur reported that Colombian defence minister Juan Manuel Santos immediately rejected the possibility of a demilitarised zone in Florida and Pradera.
Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolas Maduro, who received the four ex-legislators at the Simon Bolivar International Airport, said that the gesture of Chavez to contribute to peace in neighbouring Colombia had suffered an "avalanche of attacks by the enemies of peace, the promoters of war and those who want violence".
Maduro added that Chavez had received messages from governments and political leaders from around the world thanking him for his efforts, and called on "Venezuelans and Colombians to celebrate this victory" as a step towards peace.
While Chavez and the released prisoners appealed for negotiations to achieve a peaceful solution to Colombia's civil war, according to a March 1 Associated Press article Santos reported that the Colombian military had killed the FARC's chief negotiator, Raul Reyes, in a raid carried out in Ecuador. Seventeen rebels and one Colombian soldier were reported killed in the attack.