Visibly overcome with emotion, four former Colombian legislators, Gloria Polanco, Luis Eladio PÃ©rez, Orlando BeltrÃ¡n and Jorge Eduardo GÃ©chem – held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for years – were reunited with their families in the Simon Bolivar International airport near Caracas at 6.10 pm today 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, assured that Venezuela would “continue searching for a thousand ways to liberate all the hostages, and beyond this towards peace in Colombia.”
Chavez also called on the FARC to relocate French-Colombian hostage and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, held for 6 years, to a site much closer to medical facilities, after Luis Eladio PÃ©rez informed him of her delicate state of health.
Orlando BeltrÃ¡n thanked the efforts of Chavez and Colombian Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba, whose mediation for a humanitarian exchange of 45 high-profile hostages held by the FARC for 500 guerrillas held prisoner in Colombian jails, was terminated abruptly by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in November last year.
“We are evidence before the whole world of what you have done for Colombia,” he affirmed.
Eladio PÃ©rez exhorted the Venezuelan chief of state 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 Colombian government entities.
The mission to rescue the hostages, dubbed “Path to Peace,” by Chavez, began at 7.25 am (local time) as two Venezuelan helicopters, emblazoned with International Red Cross symbols, departed for Colombia from the Santo Domingo airport, Tachira in the southwest of Venezuela. Venezuelan Justice Minister, RamÃ³n RodrÃguez ChacÃn and Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba, as well as four representatives of the Red Cross formed part of the mission.
Due to the delicate state of health of the hostages, particularly that of GÃ©chem, who is believed to have a heart condition, two doctors were also on board to provide immediate medical attention.
After arriving at the Colombian airport of San JosÃ© del Guaviare, the mission then departed at 9.06 (local time), to an undisclosed location in the Colombian jungle where, Red Cross representative BÃ¡rbara Hinterman told Caracas based Latin American TV channel Telesur, the hostages were released “within minutes.”
Hinterman revealed that an agreement had been reached between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments to land in Colombian territory in the case that one of the hostages needed urgent medical attention. However, all of the hostages were in a stable condition she assured.
This is the second unilateral hostage release by the FARC this year after Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo were handed over to Venezuelan authorities on January 10.
On February 2 the FARC announced the unilateral liberation of the former legislators, Gloria Polanco de Lozada, Luis Eladio PÃ©rez and Orlando BeltrÃ¡n, for health reasons and as another gesture to make amends to President Chavez after Uribe terminated his mediating role.
Days later, IvÃ¡n MÃ¡rquez, spokesperson for the FARC, confirmed that ex parliamentarian, Jorge Eduardo GÃ©chem, would also be liberated.
However, on February 13 the FARC said that the hostage release had been suspended due to Colombian military operations in the area.
Then on Monday ChacÃn and Venezuelan Foreign Minister, NicolÃ¡s Maduro, announced that they had received the coordinates for where the hostages would be liberated.
The group was escorted to the area La Paz de El Retorno, in the Colombian province of Guaviare, by a battalion of 60 guerrillas.
Families of the hostages, waiting at Simon Bolivar International airport watched as Caracas based Latin American news channel, Telesur, showed unedited footage of the moment in which the four hostages were released to Minister RodrÃguez ChacÃn and Senator CÃ³rdoba.
In between moments of great emotion, each of the hostages spoke, thanking President Chavez and Piedad CÃ³rdoba and expressed their hope that this new gesture by the guerrillas would open the path to a peace accord in Colombia.
“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,” Polanco said.
In a communiquÃ© to Caracol Radio minutes after the hostage release was announced, the FARC said this would be the last unilateral hostage handover and called on the Colombian government to clear the military from Florida and Pradera provinces and enter into a process of negotiations for a humanitarian exchange.
In a nationally televised announcement President Uribe welcomed the release of the hostages and said, ” 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 Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos immediately rejected the possibility of a demilitarized zone in Florida and Pradera.
Maduro, who received the four ex-legislators at the Simon Bolivar International Airport, said that the gesture of President Chavez to contribute to peace in neighboring Colombia had suffered an “avalanche of attacks by the enemies of peace, the promoters of war and those who want violence.”
On the other hand, Maduro added that President 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.
Kiraz Janicke writes for Venezuela Analysis.
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This post was written by Kiraz Janicke