Two female hostages held in the jungle by Colombian rebels for more than five years were released Thursday in a deal brokered by the president of Venezuela.
The women were escorted out of the jungle by armed guerrillas to a clearing where they were picked up by Venezuelan helicopters that bore International Red Cross insignias.
Clara Rojas, who was captured in February 2002, and former Colombian Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, abducted in September 2001, exchanged goodbyes with their captors before boarding the helicopters and being flown across the border to Venezuela.
Rojas and Gonzalez smiled broadly as they spoke by satellite phone with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who negotiated their release.
"A thousand times thank you," Rojas said. "We are being reborn!"
The women, who appeared thin but in good health, were flown across the border, then boarded a plane to Caracas, where Chavez greeted them with hugs and kisses at the presidential palace. The women and their families stood beside him and sang Colombia's national anthem while a military band played.
Years Bring Changes
Rojas was an aide to Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt when the two were kidnapped on the campaign trail. While being held captive, Rojas gave birth to a boy fathered by one of the rebels
Getting off the plane in Venezuela, Gonzales embraced her 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time. She also became a widow during her years as a hostage.
Their release was a major triumph for Chavez, whose leftist ideology helped win him the role of mediator with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It was the most important hostage release since 2001, when the rebels freed some 300 soldiers and police officers.
In a statement published on a pro-rebel Web site, the FARC said the unilateral release demonstrated the group's willingness to engage the Colombian government in talks over the release of as many as 700 people who are still being held. Three American defense contractors are among the remaining hostages.
"Venezuela will continue opening the way for peace in Colombia," Chavez said. "We are ready, and in contact with the FARC, and we hope the Colombian government understands. I'm sure they will understand."
In a televised speech, Colombia's U.S.-allied president, Alvaro Uribe, thanked Chavez for his efforts.
The release could help the flamboyant Chavez take on a greater role in Latin America's longest-running conflict, in spite of frosty relations with Uribe. The release puts pressure on Uribe for government concessions to secure the release of 44 other high-profile captives.
The rebels sent letters from eight hostages — including lawmakers, a former state governor and a police officer — to prove they were still alive, said Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who accompanied the rescuers.
Betancourt holds both Colombian and French citizenship, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was heartened by Thursday's hostage release.
"This proves that things are moving, that the mobilization is bringing its first results," said Sarkozy. "This commits us to boosting our efforts to bring the other hostages home."
The guerrillas have offered to exchange the 44 high-profile hostages for hundreds of rebel fighters imprisoned in Colombia and the United States.
Chavez's efforts to negotiate an exchange stalled in November when Uribe said the Venezuelan leader improperly made direct contact with the head of Colombia's army. Chavez responded by freezing relations with Uribe.
FARC offered last month to release the two women directly to Chavez, along with Rojas' 3-year-old son, Emmanuel. But that deal fell through Dec. 31, when FARC accused Colombia of conducting military operations in the area of the planned release.
Uribe's government said the guerrillas backed out because they didn't have the child. That claim was later proved by DNA tests that confirmed Emmanuel has been in a Bogota foster home for more than two years.
Rojas said her son was taken away from her eight months after his birth, and she didn't receive news of him again until three years later when Uribe said the boy was in foster care.
Rojas said she hopes to be reunited with Emmanuel.
"I was always very worried to know where my baby was," she told Colombia's Caracol Radio.
Chavez asked the news media to respect the women's privacy, but Venezuela's state-supported television network, Telesur, broadcasted video of the prisoner handover.
"President, a thousand thanks for your humanitarian gesture," Gonzalez was shown telling Chavez by satellite phone.
The International Committee of the Red Cross oversaw the handover, and Colombia agreed to halt military operations in a swath of jungle to allow the mission.
The head of the European Union's administrative body, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the release was an encouraging sign.
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who once was held hostage by a criminal gang for eight months, applauded the release, but added: "Let's not forget the more than 750 other hostages being held by the FARC, some held for more than 10 years, about whom we know nothing."
After several weeks of negotiations, Colombian guerrillas freed two women held hostage for more than five years on Jan. 10.
The women — Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez — were picked up by helicopter from an undisclosed location in Colombia's jungle and flown to freedom. Their release was brokered by Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, and raised hopes of freedom for others still held hostage by the rebels.
In addition to Betancourt, those still in captivity include three American security contractors who were captured in 2003. The Colombian government has renewed attempts to set up a prisoner exchange with a Marxist rebel group, but many such efforts have collapsed in the past.
Here is some background on the hostage situation:
Who are the hostages?
There are at least 750 people held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — known by its Spanish acronym FARC. Most are held for ransom to support the insurgent group's operations, but the FARC has offered around 60 as "exchangeable." They include police, soldiers and local government officials whom the FARC wants to exchange for about 500 of its own members now in Colombian jails.
Are any of the hostages well-known?
The most high-profile captive is Ingrid Betancourt, a former member of the Colombian Senate who was captured when she attempted to take her presidential campaign into rebel-occupied territory. Betancourt, now 45, has been held for nearly six years. Recent video captured by the Colombian government showed her sitting dejectedly in what appears to be a jungle setting. Relatives say that she appears to be extremely thin and weak. Because Betancourt holds dual Colombian and French citizenship, the French government has been active in efforts to gain her release.
Who are the American captives?
The recent videos show three Americans who were captured in February 2003, when their small plane went down in a rebel-held area. The men — Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsavles and Keith Stansell — were working for California Microwave Systems, a U.S. defense contractor. Company officials say they were searching for evidence of opium poppy and coca leaf crops in the jungle. The rebels killed two other men who were on the plane, an American and a Colombian, saying they were shot as they tried to escape.
When did we last hear about the hostages?
The most recent direct account of the hostages comes from a Colombian police officer, Jhon Frank Pinchao, who said he escaped from the FARC last May after being a captive for almost nine years. Pinchao said he was held for a time in the same camp as Betancourt and the three Americans.
Who are the hostage-takers?
The FARC is a guerrilla army that was organized in 1964. It was formed by rebels who had sprung up during the bloody Colombian civil war of the 1950s, a period known as "La Violencia." It's now thought to have more than 10,000 members, including many child soldiers. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 20 percent of FARC fighters are between the ages of 12 and 18, and says that many are kept in the army by threats of torture and death.
What do they want?
The group started as a pro-Communist guerrilla movement that said it was committed to relieving the country's poor from the oppression of wealthy landowners. It still claims those goals, but now supports itself with millions of dollars raised from extortion, kidnapping and protection of Colombia's huge trade in illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
How is the group viewed?
The Colombian government, the United States and the European Union all regard the FARC as a terrorist organization. They say the group's ruthless tactics have alienated the population, and that it now exists mainly as a criminal enterprise.
Have the government and the FARC tried negotiations?
After so many years of fighting, the two sides are deeply distrustful. In 1998, the government granted the FARC a haven as a confidence-building measure. As long as peace talks were going on, the government pledged not to attack the rebels within a designated area of more than 16,000 square miles. Reports by the BBC and other news sources indicated that the FARC used the time to rebuild and re-arm. After three years, the talks collapsed and the government re-took the area.
What do the two sides want now?
The FARC wants the government to establish another temporary safe zone, as well as a formal mechanism for exchanging prisoners. The group wants the government to release all 500 or more of its members from jails and to allow them to return to the rebel army.
The government of President Alvaro Uribe has said previously that it won't negotiate unless the rebels first agree to a cease-fire. The government also wants to make sure that any FARC prisoners who are freed will either leave the country or agree not to take up arms again.
In early December, the government pardoned 23 low-level FARC members, in what it said was a good-will gesture.