Colombia rejects Venezuela's hostage swap request

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BOGOTA, Sep 16 (Reuters) Colombia refused to pull back troops to create a safe zone for talks aimed at freeing rebel hostages including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, rejecting a proposal from Venezuela.

Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez yesterday asked his conservative Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, to order troops away from the southern town of San Vicente del Caguan to let Marxist guerrillas enter and negotiate a swap of their kidnap victims for rebels held in government jails.

Uribe, who won the presidency by fiercely criticizing peace talks held in the same town under the previous president, reiterated his refusal to create a neutral zone in Colombia.

''I don't have to repeat what I have already said,'' Uribe told reporters asking for a response to Chavez's proposal.

Earlier this month Uribe asked Chavez to facilitate the talks.

Chavez, who says socialism can unite South America against what he calls US ''imperialism,'' said Colombian rebel leader Manuel Marulanda told him he cannot travel to Venezuela as had been planned.

''Marulanda suggested that we meet in Caguan,'' Chavez said in a television appearance. ''All you (Uribe) have to do is pull the military back a few kilometers and assure us that there will be no incursions for a few days.'' ''Mr. President,'' Chavez continued. ''You asked me for help and I want to help. Now, help me. I formally ask you in front of the world to allow me to talk with Marulanda in Colombia.'' Betancourt, a French-Colombian national, was kidnapped during her 2002 presidential campaign. She and dozens of other high-profile captives including three American defense contractors taken in 2003 are being held in secret jungle camps by rebels fighting a four-decades-old insurgency.

San Vicente del Caguan was the site of a peace initiative under which Colombia's former President Andres Pastrana ceded a Switzerland-sized piece of territory to FARC rebels.

The talks broke down in 2002, the year that Uribe was first elected. He won a second term in 2006 after cutting crime and sparking economic growth with his tough security policies.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping more than 20 years ago, remains popular despite a scandal in which some of his closest political allies are accused of helping right-wing death squads.

Reuters SZ VP0625

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