Two hostages freed in Colombia

Leftist rebels in Colombia on Thursday freed two long-time hostages, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bogota said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had led efforts to secure the hostages release, said he talked over the telephone to released politicians Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, who told him they were in good condition.

The women boarded helicopters in the Colombian jungle and left for the Venezuelan town of Santo Domingo, a Red Cross official in Bogota said. The helicopters were to refuel there before travelling on to Caracas, where relatives of the two hostages have been waiting for weeks.

Two Venezuelan helicopters marked as Red Cross vehicles travelled to coordinates provided by FARC in the southern Colombian jungle to retrieve the hostages. It was the second attempt in two weeks to free them.

"They are in our hands, we are very happy," said Barbara Hintermann, head of the Red Cross in the Colombian capital.

Red Cross spokesman Yves Heller said it was not known when Rojas, 44, and Gonzalez, 57, would return to Colombia and that the Red Cross did not know their health condition. It was not known whether FARC planned to release other hostages in the coming days, he said.

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos expressed his satisfaction with the releases and said he hoped FARC would follow the move by freeing some 750 other hostages.

Chavez said the next objective was obtaining the liberation of all FARC hostages and "beyond that, to seek peace for Colombia."

The families of Rojas, a former vice presidential candidate, and Gonzalez, a former legislator, expressed their joy and said they eagerly looked forward to meeting their loved ones. The meeting was expected to take place in Caracas.

The two women had been held by FARC for several years, along with hundreds of other civilians and Colombian officials, some of whom have been held for more than 10 years.

The Colombian government authorized the mission and ordered the suspension of military operations in a large area of the southern province of Guaviare.

In 2007, Chavez acted as a mediator in an effort to secure an exchange of some 50 politically relevant FARC hostages for hundreds of leftist rebels held in prison.

But he was dismissed from the job in November by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, after talking directly with a Colombian general after he had specifically been asked not to do so.

In late December, Chavez orchestrated a high-profile international attempt to free Gonzalez, Rojas and her 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, who was born in captivity from a consenting relationship a rank-and-file rebel.

That operation was called off last week, and Uribe shocked the world by announcing FARC could not release Emmanuel because he was already in state custody and had been free for over two years. DNA tests later confirmed a boy in state custody was indeed Rojas' son.

Rojas was kidnapped on February 23, 2002 along with her party's presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual French- Colombian citizenship and is the highest-profile hostage held by FARC.

Gonzalez, then a legislator for the opposition Liberal Party, was kidnapped on September 10, 2001. Her husband, former legislator Jairo Perdomo, died of heart problems during her captivity, in 2003.

The team to release the hostages included Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, the Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, four Red Cross delegates and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who worked with Chavez last year in mediation efforts.

The Colombian government asked that Cuba join the mission "to acknowledge the efforts that the Cuban government and (President) Fidel Castro have made for a long time for peace in Colombia," Chavez said. ( Dpa )

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