Colombia puts year-end deadline on hostage talks

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BOGOTA, Nov 20 (Reuters) Colombia placed a year-end deadline on talks led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez aimed at freeing rebel-held kidnap victims including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

The statement released yesterday by the government puts pressure on left-winger Chavez, who is trying to broker an exchange of the hostages for rebels held in government jails.

Analysts said it also shows conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's impatience with the talks, which have so far yielded no breakthroughs.

''This is Uribe's way of saying that Chavez does not have an open-ended invitation to be involved in Colombia's internal affairs,'' political commentator Ricardo Avila said.

Chavez, who says socialism can unite Latin America against US ''imperialism'', was invited by US ally Uribe earlier this year to act as an intermediary with the four-decade-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Among the hostages held by the cocaine-funded group are Betancourt, taken during her 2002 presidential campaign, and three US defense contractors captured during an anti-drug mission in 2003.

The hardening of Colombia's stance came just after Chavez, in France on Monday to meet with the government about Betancourt, said that Uribe was be willing to sit down and negotiate with the leader of the FARC.

Colombia fired back with a statement saying Uribe's willingness to meet with FARC top commander Manuel Marulanda was conditional on the rebels freeing all hostages and entering into broader peace talks.

The statement said that by talking about a possible meeting between Uribe and Marulanda, Chavez had revealed information from secret discussions at an early November meeting between the two presidents.

''President Uribe told President Chavez that this mediation process should have a time limit,'' the statement said. ''The government thinks that limit should be the month of December.'' Colombian columnist Daniel Coronell, who often criticizes Uribe, said the imposition of the deadline was ''a death sentence for any possible exchange of prisoners by way of Chavez.'' Reuters ARB DB0944

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