- Alvaro Uribe - Colombia - FARC - hostages - Hugo Chavez - Venezuela
Colombian rebels on Wednesday freed four former lawmakers held hostage for more than six years, handing them over to representatives of the Red Cross and Venezuela, officials said.
Two Venezuelan MI-17 helicopters painted with Red Cross symbols picked up the hostages in the southern Colombian jungle, in an operation authorized by Bogota, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
Colombia's ICRC chief, Barbara Hintermann, said she was "very happy" with the outcome, adding that the four were in satisfactory physical health.
It was the second such joint Red Cross-Venezuelan mission in as many months.
In January, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas released two women under the same conditions.
One of them was Clara Rojas, a top aide to Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian national who had been campaigning for the Colombian presidency when the two were seized six years ago. Betancourt, 46, remains captive.
Those released Wednesday were former legislators Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltran, Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Gechem, who is said to be in poor health. The FARC on February 2 offered to release them to a team sent by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In Caracas, Chavez spokesman Jesse Chacon said the ex-hostages "are in our hands, safe and sound."
He said the four -- who were accompanied in the helicopters by Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, four Red Cross envoys and two Venezuelan doctors -- were being taken to a Venezuelan airbase in the southwest town of Santo Domingo.
From there, they were to be transferred to waiting planes for a flight to Caracas, where their relatives are waiting, he said.
Although the release was being presented as a unilateral move by the rebels, the four were among a group of 43 captives used by FARC as bargaining chips with the Colombian government.
The rebel group wants to exchange them for 500 rebels in Colombian prisons, and is demanding that a large area of the country be demilitarized for the swap.
In a statement issued to radio Caracol after the release, FARC said Bogota must now accede to its demand that two rural municipalities be made a haven for its members.
"Now the army must leave Pradera and Florida for 45 days, with guerrillas and an international community presence as guarantors, so negotiations can take place in this area for the liberation of the guerrillas and the prisoners of war held by the FARC," it said.
Most of the FARC hostages are Colombians, but the Marxist groups also holds three US government contractors captured during an anti-narcotics operation five years ago.
The US State Department, while welcoming Wednesday's hostage release, said it was "reprehensible that the FARC ... continue to hold hostages, including our American citizen contractors who have now spent several years in captivity."
The rebels' insistence on Chavez heading up the two recovery operations was meant to embarrass the Colombian government, which has been resisting their demands for the prisoner swap and a large demilitarized zone.
There is no love lost between Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
In November, Uribe publicly dropped Chavez from his role mediating the prisoner swap between the two sides after Chavez bypassed protocol channels to speak to a Colombian army chief directly.
The Venezuelan leader, whose fierce left-wing, anti-US rhetoric runs counter to Uribe's pro-Washington position, also nettled his neighbor by suggesting the FARC be dropped from US and EU terror organization lists and be regarded as a legitimate armed force.
Chavez, who has been facing difficulties at home recently, has been basking in the international glory brought by his involvement in the hostage releases.
France, which has been making concerted efforts to have Betancourt freed, has been communicating regularly with Caracas on the issue.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Wednesday called the release of the four lawmakers "a powerful boost to ... find an urgent humanitarian solution" to the hostage crisis and to efforts to free other hostages including Betancourt.