Venezuela's Chavez meets Colombia rebel on hostages

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CARACAS, Nov 8 (Reuters) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with a FARC guerrilla from Colombia, marking the first advance in the leftist leader's effort to break a deadlock in talks over the release of hostages.

After an hours-long meeting, which took weeks to organise, the leftist anti-US president said hostage negotiations would be difficult.

''Today, I met for several hours with an envoy of (FARC leader) Manuel Marulanda. It was the first meeting. There will be others as we look for a solution. But it is not easy,'' Chavez said yesterday.

Colombia's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, responded to Chavez yesterday with a press statement saying, ''For the moment, the Colombian government has not received any information about this meeting from Venezuela's government.'' Colombian President Alvaro Uribe earlier yesterday called for patience to give his counterpart in neighboring Venezuela time to break an impasse with Latin America's oldest insurgency.

Any meeting between a head of state and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, helps give international recognition to a group labeled terrorists by governments around the world, political analysts say.

Chavez, who has frayed relations with the United States and cool ties with some other Western governments, is also likely to boost his international profile through the mediation.

The former soldier's negotiation efforts have also helped improve often tense relations with the rightist Uribe. But Colombia has balked at some of his proposals, including recent requests for permission to travel into the Colombian jungle to meet with rebel leaders.

The FARC wants rebel prisoners freed in exchange for the most high-profile hostages, held for years in jungle camps, including a French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three US contract workers.

Colombia's government last sat down for talks with the FARC during a 1999-2002 peace negotiations with Uribe's predecessor, which collapsed after officials blamed the guerrillas for using a safe haven to rearm and regroup.

In February 2000, a group of senior FARC members travelled to Europe, where they met government officials and studied political and economic development models.

Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC two decades a go, is popular for his hard line against the rebels since taking office in 2002. But this year he released a jailed top guerrilla to try to facilitate talks over hostages.

Chavez, South America's leading leftist voice, has credibility with the rebels, but it is unclear if he can overcome obstacles to the accord such as Uribe's refusal to meet the FARC demand for a demilitarized area.

REUTERS GT BD0930

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