Colombia hostage rescue setback for Chavez

CARACAS Thu Jul 3, 2008 10:52pm BST

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CARACAS (Reuters) - For months, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promised to seek the release of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt but her liberation in a surprise rescue has turned out to be a setback for the leftist leader.

Just hours after Betancourt was freed by Colombian troops, the one-time presidential candidate urged Chavez not to meddle in Colombian affairs and strongly backed President Alvaro Uribe, a pro-U.S. ideological adversary of the leftist Chavez.

Wednesday's bold rescue operation likely will boost political support for Uribe's hard-line stance against the FARC rebels and decrease backing for Chavez's position that only negotiation can end Colombia's four-decade-old civil war.

"Chavez has been accusing Uribe of being a war-monger but when all of a sudden Uribe achieves this rescue without a single shot fired, Chavez is being run over by the facts," said Eduardo Gamarra, director at Newlink Research, a Miami-based polling firm that works in Latin America.

Colombia's military tricked rebels into freeing Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including three Americans, from a jungle camp in a bloodless rescue that deals a severe blow to Latin America's oldest left-wing insurgency.

The talkative Chavez, who has commented extensively on the Colombian conflict, was slow to address the rescue of the highest-profile hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"We are overjoyed at the liberation of those people ... and even happier to learn they were freed without spilling a drop of blood," Chavez said on Thursday, nearly 24 hours after the news was announced.

Earlier this year Chavez, a former army officer who once led a failed coup, used his leftist credentials to convince FARC leaders to hand over six hostages, including kidnapped politicians, in a move that won him praise across the continent.

But relations with Colombia soured after Colombia's raid into Ecuador to kill FARC commander Raul Reyes, triggering the worst Andean diplomatic crisis in a decade and boosting tensions between Caracas and Bogota.

CHAVEZ'S SHIFT

As Uribe's military successes have mounted in recent months and Venezuelan polls have shown Chavez's sympathy for the FARC winning him few supporters, the leftist has shifted to emphasize that the rebel group should focus on negotiations.

Securing high-profile hostage releases this year would have boosted Chavez's image abroad and at home in an election year.

Instead, it was his rival Uribe receiving plaudits from heads of state and adulation from Colombians that could galvanize his hard-core supporters to push a constitutional change to let him run for re-election.

Betancourt, speaking to reporters in military fatigues after her rescue on Wednesday, thanked Chavez for brokering the release of six rebel-held hostages earlier this year.

But her thanks came with a condition for both Chavez, who has expressed sympathy for the FARC, and his ally Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who has waged a harsh war of words with Uribe.

"I think (Chavez and Correa) are important allies in this process -- but on the condition of respect for Colombian democracy," Betancourt said. "Colombians elected Alvaro Uribe. Colombians did not elect the FARC."

Correa responded harshly to Betancourt's call to restore ties with Uribe, saying he was glad for her release but urged Colombia "when it comes to us please leave us alone ... please stop involving us into your problems."

Correa has been less willing than other leaders to openly congratulate Colombia and Ecuador appears unlikely to improve ties with its neighbour.

Commentators on Venezuela's openly pro-Chavez state television bristled at Betancourt's words and accused her of trying to use the worldwide fame from her captivity to promote Uribe's politics at the expense of Chavez's leftist movement.

"She's speaking as if she were an official of the Uribe government," Walter Martinez, an international relations expert, said in an interview on state television.

Betancourt also said the Colombian policy of presidential re-election already has dealt a great blow to the FARC by allowing continuity in the fight against rebels, suggesting she could back Uribe in his controversial effort to seek a third term.

Her statements came just days after Colombia's top court questioned the legitimacy of Uribe's 2006 re-election after a legislator admitted she received bribes to vote for a measure allowing presidential re-election.

Betancourt urged Correa and Chavez to restore ties with Uribe and said other leaders should be invited to help release hundreds of hostages still in rebel hands.

"We call on President Chavez and President Correa to help us establish ties of friendship and fraternity with President Uribe," Betancourt said.

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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