President Hugo Chavez says the chief of Colombia's largest rebel group has contacted him as the Venezuelan leader seeks to mediate between the leftist guerrillas and Colombia's U.S.-allied government.
Chavez, who is trying to broker an exchange of rebel-held hostages for imprisoned rebels, said Saturday that he received a letter from Manuel Marulanda, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, while the smaller National Liberation Army rebel group held talks in Caracas with Colombian officials.
Three U.S. defense contractors are among about 45 prominent hostages held by the FARC.
"I started off accepting the role of observer but not anymore — I've fallen into the role of mediator," the socialist president said in televised remarks. "There are manifestations of good faith to open paths, to dialogue."
Chavez said he received Marulanda's letter two days earlier and that the FARC leader said he would send a representative to talks.
"He still can't come to Venezuela. He's inviting me to go to Colombia. It's difficult for me to go into the jungles of Colombia," said Chavez, who did not reveal all of the letter's contents. "But we're moving along."
Chavez has said he expects to meet soon with a high-ranking representative of the FARC in hopes of arranging a possible exchange of imprisoned guerrillas for rebel-held hostages. The Colombian government and the FARC have voiced support in principle for the swap but have long argued about how to achieve it.
Chavez held a lengthy meeting Friday night with Colombian peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who met separately with a delegate of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, during two days in Caracas. The rebel group was represented by Pablo Beltran, and the government said Venezuela's ambassador to Colombia, Pavel Rondon, participated in one of the meetings.
The ELN previously has held talks with the Colombian government in Cuba, but negotiations have stalled.
Chavez is for the first time stepping squarely into Colombia's long-running conflict as a facilitator, initially invited by a Colombian senator and accepted by President Alvaro Uribe's government.
"If I have to go to the gates of hell to try for a humanitarian accord — and beyond that a peace accord in the beloved sister nation of Colombia — well I will go there with your approval," Chavez told supporters during a speech in Caracas.
Last Mod: 09 Eylül 2007, 18:59