Setback seen in Colombian hostage release efforts

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BOGOTA, Sep 17 (Reuters) Efforts at freeing hostages held by Colombian rebels were stalled over the weekend after a guerrilla leader said he would not attend talks in neighbouring Venezuela aimed at clinching a prisoner exchange.

Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, asked by Colombia to facilitate hostage swap negotiations, had planned to host the talks in Caracas, but rebel leader Manuel Marulanda said he would not attend meetings outside of Colombia.

On Saturday Chavez urged conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to pull troops from the southern town of San Vicente del Caguan to hold discussions there, an idea Uribe quickly rejected. The deadlock leaves the fate of hostages such as French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt in limbo.

''If it is true that Marulanda is not going to go to Caracas, it is very bad news for the hostages because everyone knows Uribe is not going to demilitarize Caguan,'' said Gustavo Duncan, a Bogota-based security analyst.

San Vicente del Caguan was the site of a failed peace initiative under which Colombia's previous president ceded a Switzerland-sized piece of territory to the rebels.

Hard-liner Uribe fiercely criticised those talks in his first presidential campaign and won a second term last year based on his military crackdown on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been leading a communist insurrection since the 1960s.

A video was released yesterday in which FARC spokesman Raul Reyes said representatives of the rebel army would hold a preliminary meeting with Chavez on October 8. Reyes did not say where the meeting would be held and it was unclear when the video was recorded.

MANY HOSTAGES The FARC is holding dozens of high profile hostages like Betancourt, taken during her 2002 presidential campaign, and U.S. defense contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, captured during a drug-eradication mission in 2003.

The FARC says it wants to swap the captives for rebels held in government jails and those facing drug charges in the United States. The sticking point has been the FARC's demand for a safe area to hold the negotiations.

''Our hopes were tied to the idea of talks in Caracas,'' Mariana Howes, wife of Thomas Howes, told Reuters.

''It is hard to tell if the FARC is serious about an exchange, because they always seem to come up with a reason for not advancing the negotiations,'' she said by telephone from Florida.

Chavez, who says socialism can unite South America against what he calls US imperialism, is on a campaign to increase his influence in the region. But his appeal to demilitarize Caguan did not go over well with Bogota.

''It is a mockery to propose the impossible,'' Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin told Reuters.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is willing to go to Colombia to help secure the release of Betancourt and other hostages, his spokesman David Martinon told French radio.

Asked to comment on a remark by Chavez, who said Sarkozy proposed the two go to Colombia, Martinon added, ''If it is necessary, I do not think he will hesitate, if it can be useful and if it is at the right moment.'' Reuters RC VP0750

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