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September 1, 2007

Colombia: Chávez Brokers Pact for Govt.-FARC Talks

by Constanza Vieira

HATO GRANDE, Colombia, Aug. 31 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to broker a humanitarian agreement for the release of hostages held by Colombia’s guerrillas have already begun to bear fruit.

The main announcement after Chávez’s meeting with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Friday was that talks on an agreement will begin in Caracas between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"That has already been agreed by the two sides," a source close to the meeting told IPS.

On Thursday night, Uribe accepted Chávez’s proposal for talks in Caracas, which the FARC had already agreed to.

The talks will be "exclusively on the question of the humanitarian accord" which would involve a swap of 10 civilian hostages, like former senator Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors working for the U.S.-financed counterinsurgency Plan Colombia, and 34 members of the police and military captured in combat by the FARC, for around 400 imprisoned insurgents.

"If that goes well, the mechanism will remain in place" for future peace talks, added the source.

Colombia has been in the grip of armed conflict for over four decades. Peace talks between the FARC and the administration of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) broke off in 2002.

"I see it as extremely significant that talks that would benefit the families and the hostages themselves could begin," Bruno Moro, the United Nations resident coordinator in Colombia, commented to IPS from abroad.

"We hope this will serve as a phase of rapprochement that could facilitate political dialogue," he added.

At the urging of Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, Chávez agreed less than two weeks ago to help mediate a humanitarian accord.

Thanks to the Venezuelan leader’s involvement, which was welcomed by all of the parties, Uribe has agreed for his government to sit down at the negotiating table with the FARC to discuss a humanitarian exchange of prisoners for hostages.

In December, two of the hostages – two soldiers – will hit the 10th anniversary of their capture by the FARC.

Chávez also got the FARC to agree to negotiate outside of Colombian territory. But the exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas would take place within Colombia, as demanded by the rebels.

The guerrillas had refused to negotiate outside of Colombia ever since the collapse of peace talks held with previous governments in the Venezuelan capital and in Mexico, in the 1990s.

Ruling out that possibility made it imperative to "demilitarize" a safe haven in Colombia where the two sides could hold talks, as the Pastrana administration did from January 1999 to February 2002 in the Caguán region in the south.

Chávez also "wants a FARC office to be opened in Caracas, in order to be able to speak directly with them," the anonymous source told IPS.

The longest stage of the talks on a humanitarian agreement would take place in Caracas, while the actual swap itself could take just a few days, under international monitoring.

Uribe has staunchly refused to withdraw government troops from any part of the country, as demanded by the FARC, to create a safe haven for talks.

He has also refused to budge from his insistence that any rebels who are freed from prison must not take up arms again. But Chávez and Córdoba have worked out a compromise formula, which will be set forth in the negotiations in Caracas.

The Venezuelan leader reached Bogotá Friday morning for a six-hour visit. He was driven in a motorcade of 15 armored vehicles to the Hato Grande presidential estate 20 km north of Bogotá, where Uribe had stayed Thursday night to prepare for the meeting.

Early Friday, the Colombian leader met with Senator Córdoba, who he had appointed as facilitator of a humanitarian accord, and with the government’s peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo.

On his own initiative, Chávez also planned to meet with the families of imprisoned guerrillas in the Venezuelan embassy in Bogotá, and with Colombian media executives.

Chávez’s meeting with local media owners and columnists was a proposal put forth by the Venezuelan and Colombian facilitators on the argument that "the entire undertaking could fail if media executives continue to oppose the idea of an exchange. Since Piedad (Córdoba) began to get involved, the media have taken a critical stance," said the source, who is close to the senator.

"The aim is to soften opposition to the swap," the source added.

When Uribe named Córdoba facilitator of a humanitarian agreement, he also instructed Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias to launch a parallel campaign against a demilitarized zone, "to which all of the media outlets have given ample space," said the source.

Arias has been touring the country offering benefits from government programs, and handing out – and wearing – t-shirts with slogans against the creation of a safe haven.

Friday’s second major announcement, a request by Bogotá that was accepted by Chávez, was for Venezuela not to withdraw from the Andean Community trade bloc (also made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), a plan that the Venezuelan leader had announced in April 2006.

As part of his efforts to broker an agreement, Chávez will meet soon with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who, since taking office in May, has pressed Uribe to negotiate the release of Betancourt (who holds dual Colombian and French nationality) and the other hostages.

Largely as a result of Sarkozy’s pressure, the Colombian government released Rodrigo Granda, FARC’s international relations chief, who was illegally seized in Caracas in December 2004. (END/2007)

(Inter Press Service)

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