Colombia hostage release hits new delay

( AFP )- As darkness fell over the Colombian jungles Saturday, the much-awaited release of three hostages including a small boy held by Marxist rebels was delayed for a second day.

Two helicopters sent by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has spearheaded the operation under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have been on standby here since Friday.

But a diplomat in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, told AFP the release would not now happen on Saturday as had been hoped.

"The hostages will not be released today for a very simple reason. It gets dark at 1800 hours," he said, explaining the ICRC was not authorized to operate in the violence-ridden country at night-time.

Venezuelan officials are still waiting for the guerrillas to disclose where they will release former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo , 57; Clara Rojas, 44 and her son, Emmanuel, born to a rebel in captivity.

Earlier an official with the ICRC, Yves Heller, told AFP by telephone from Bogota : "We are in suspense awaiting the coordinates, because we still don't have them.

"Once we get them directly from them, or via someone else such as the Venezuelan government, we will ask the Colombian government for security guarantees."

A team of international observers was meanwhile on its way to Villavicencio , a city some 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Bogota , to oversee the releases.

"Operation Emmanuel" -- named after the three-year-old boy who was born in captivity -- has taken months of delicate negotiations between Chavez, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The women were snatched in 2001 and 2002 respectively; Rojas was a top aide to Franco-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was seized at the same time and remains in FARC hands.

FARC announced December 18 it would release the three to Chavez or his representative, in its first hostage releases in more than five years.

It comes after many months of failed negotiations between FARC and the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to swap about 45 hostages for some 500 FARC members held by the government.

Former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner was among seven observers heading for Villavicencio with representatives from France, Switzerland, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as US filmmaker Oliver Stone.

The handover could take place anywhere in a 310,000-square-kilometer (120,000-square-mile) wilderness in central and southeastern Colombia, where there are few roads but numerous landing strips used by drug traffickers.

Colombia's Civil Defense has made available a 100-strong search and rescue team of indigenous Colombians "who know the jungle very well," said Jorge Diaz, civil defense director for Villavicencio .

The Colombian government said Thursday that under a deadline set with Venezuelan officials the operation to pick up the three hostages must be completed by Sunday evening.

"The operation started today (Thursday) at 7:00 pm (2300 GMT) and must end Sunday at 6:59 pm (2359 GMT) at the latest," said presidential spokesman Cesar Mauricio Velazquez.

Marco Aurelio Garcia, an advisor to Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula Da Silva, said Saturday the group of observers would probably not have any contact with the guerrillas.

"It would be a great risk for them because they are probably being watched by Colombian security forces," he told Radio del Plata in Venezuela.

Security was tight Friday at the airport in Villavicencio as officials there prepared for a crush of international dignitaries, medics and journalists.

Meanwhile about 15 members of the hostages' families have travelled to Caracas, where Chavez is expected to deliver Perdomo , Rojas and Emmanuel after they are released.

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