CARACAS, Venezuela &
President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that three rebel hostages including a mother and her young son could be freed within hours if the Colombian government allows Venezuelan planes and helicopters across the border to pick them up.
"The only thing we need is the authorization of the Colombian government," Chavez announced at a news conference in the presidential palace. "We are ready to activate the humanitarian operation."
Chavez said he hopes it would be completed "in the coming hours," and that if all goes well, the hostages could be on Venezuelan soil by sundown Thursday.
Chavez's proposal to send in aircraft puts pressure on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to go along, but it was unclear how Uribe would respond, especially in light of the frosty relations between him and Chavez.
Colombia's presidential press office said Uribe would meet with his foreign minister, interior minister and top peace negotiator in a video conference call between his presidential palace and the Caribbean coast, where he is on vacation.
The hostages include former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas &
an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt &
and Rojas' young son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter.
Gonzalez and Rojas have spent about six years in captivity. Chavez said "we have information they are in good health."
Venezuelan planes and helicopters &
some already marked with Red Cross insignia &
are ready to fly into Colombia to pick up the hostages from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"All we need is the authorization from the Colombian government to turn on the green light," Chavez said.
Chavez said the Venezuelan pilots would not be told exactly where they were going until they are in the air, for security reasons. He also said he could go personally to meet them once they reach Venezuelan soil: "Maybe I'll go to some point on the border to receive these people."
"We don't want to wait another day," said Chavez, adding that he hopes the three are able to "ring in the year 2008" with their families.
Chavez also mentioned the possibility of a "clandestine" operation in which the rebels would deliver the hostages to some point along the border if the Colombian government doesn't cooperate, but said this would be risky and he'd prefer a more coordinated transfer.
Chavez said his proposal has received backing from the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba, France and Brazil. He also said Argentine President Cristina Fernandez had expressed willingness to fly in to help if necessary.
Chavez said he hopes another group of hostages would later be freed, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
The release of these initial three hostages would be the most important in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the FARC freed some 300 soldiers and police officers it had held captive. It would also be the highest-profile hostage release during the presidency of Uribe, who took office in 2002.
The announcement last week by Colombia's largest rebel group that it would unilaterally hand over the three hostages to Venezuela's socialist leader gave Chavez's involvement as a mediator a boost.
The FARC has previously offered to release 47 high-profile hostages, including Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, in return for the release of hundreds of rebels held in Colombian and U.S. prisons.
Chavez was trying to negotiate such a swap before Uribe called him off last month, saying the Venezuelan president overstepped his mandate by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army. Chavez has since frozen relations with the U.S.-allied Uribe, accusing him of caving to pressure from Washington.
Chavez said Wednesday that "all of them, including the three gringos," would have been released if Uribe had allowed him to continue mediating.
Relatives of the hostage Rojas said they approved of Chavez's plan and hoped it would lead to her quick release. Ivan Rojas, her brother and Emmanuel's uncle, told Colombia's RCN television channel he was optimistic it would work out if Uribe's governmment agrees.
"President Chavez's plan appears very good to me," he said. "It should be easy."
Associated Press writer Toby Muse, in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
Chavez awaiting Colombian 'green light' for hostage handover; Uribe considering next move
CARACAS, Venezuela &