Chavez angers Colombia, saying rebels aren't terrorists

After hostage release, Venezuelan president calls FARC guerrillas "true armies," asking for international community recognition.

Chavez 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Chavez 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, emboldened by his success in a hostage release, took the side of leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia's decades-old civil conflict, calling the guerrillas "true armies" and asking the international community to stop classifying them as terrorists. Colombia's US-allied government, which has made eradicating the rebels a top priority, reacted with outrage. Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said Colombia "cannot accept a request of this sort." Chavez's defense of the rebels thrust him deeper than ever into the thicket of Colombia's conflict. He said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army "are not terrorists, they are true armies ... They must be recognized." The FARC is the hemisphere's most potent rebel force with 14,000 fighters, mostly peasants, it says are fighting for a more equal distribution of wealth. It funds itself largely through drug trafficking and - the government says - holds some 750 people hostage, either for ransom or political leverage. "They are insurgent forces that have a political project," Chavez said Friday in a marathon speech to lawmakers. "I say it even though someone could be bothered by it." Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, a spokesman for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, later read a statement in which he did not mention Chavez by name. He said FARC guerrillas are terrorists because they "kidnap, place bombs indiscriminately, recruit and murder children, murder pregnant women and the elderly and use anti-personnel mines that have left thousands of innocent victims." "All that they've produced for the country is forced displacement, pain, unemployment and poverty," he said. Officials in Bogota were also upset that Venezuelan Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who led the Chavez-brokered handover Thursday of two long-held FARC hostages, appeared to express support for the rebels. "We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort," Rodriguez told the rebels in video footage of the handover in a Colombian jungle clearing. The European Union joined Washington in 2002 in classifying the FARC as terrorist, outlawing all economic support to the group. Colombia's armed forces also have been criticized internationally for human rights violations. The FARC has repeatedly asked world governments to remove it from such lists, and in echoing that call Friday, Chavez urged Europe and Latin American nations to resist what he called "US pressure." Uribe adviser Jose Obdulio Gaviria denounced the comments. "The FARC uses violence against democratic government and civil populations," he said. "In the canon of international law, that makes them a terrorist group." Chavez's critics in Bogota and Washington have long suspected he clandestinely supports the FARC, a charge he denies. His involvement in the conflict deepened in August, when Uribe invited him to try to mediate a prisoner swap with the rebels. Uribe called his Venezuelan counterpart off in November, accusing him of overstepping his authority. Thursday's release of two women held for about six years was a nod to Chavez's intervention. After tearful reunions with relatives waiting in Caracas, the Colombians Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez greeted Chavez with hugs and kisses. The handover was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers. It was also a major triumph for Chavez after a series of setbacks, including his first loss at the polls in a December vote on constitutional changes that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely. Chavez said he hoped the success could be repeated for former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and dozens of other captives, including three Americans. But he said that largely depends on Uribe. During a news conference on Friday evening, Rojas described the FARC as "a criminal organization," condemning its kidnappings as "a total violation of human dignity." Rojas said rebels restrained her and Betancourt with chains after they attempted to escape, but later released them. Betancourt's daughter, Melanie, told Brazil's Globo TV that she saw the release of the hostages as a very positive sign, but that she doesn't believe her mother can last much longer in captivity. Melanie Betancourt, a university student in New York, characterized the liberation of the two as a "miracle" but said she is very worried about her mother because of the harsh conditions of her captivity, Globo reported. The guerrillas have offered to trade 44 other high-profile captives for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the US But Uribe has refused to let Chavez meet with FARC leaders on Colombian soil. The FARC, in a statement published on a pro-rebel Web site, said the unilateral release demonstrated the group's "unquestionable willingness" to talk with the government about remaining hostages. But Velasquez said the release of Gonzalez and Rojas "can't hide the horror of the kidnapping of which they were victims for so many years, nor can it obscure the torturous treatment by the FARC of members of the security forces and politicians kidnapped by them: They are chained day and night in cages, as the two newly freed persons have attested."