Colombia halts Chavez-rebel hostage talks

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BOGOTA, Nov 22 (Reuters) Colombia accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of overstepping his bounds while trying to mediate the release of hostages held by left-wing rebels and called off the talks.

The surprise move by Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe was bad news for kidnap victims including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors held for years in secret jungle camps.

''The president has terminated the mediation,'' a statement from Uribe's office said.

Chavez was invited in August by the conservative Uribe to broker the exchange of the hostages for guerrillas held in Colombian prisons.

The Venezuelan president spoke with Colombian armed services commander Mario Montoya on Wednesday and requested information about the hostages, according to Uribe's statement.

That violated an agreement that only Uribe and Chavez would hold discussions between the two neighboring counties about hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the statement said.

''This is a complete setback for any possible hostage exchange.

But Uribe had no choice,'' said Pablo Casas, analyst at Bogota think tank Security&Democracy.

''You cannot accept the president of another country requesting information directly from your top military commander,'' Casas said.

''That is totally against protocol.'' Uribe had said Chavez may be the only person who could obtain the release of the hostages because the rebels respect the left-wing leader.

''I have always thought President Chavez is the only one in the world who the FARC will respect and be able to hand over the hostages to,'' Uribe said at a public event on Wednesday.

The cocaine-funded guerrilla army are holding dozens of high-profile hostages including police officers, former members of Congress and provincial governors.

Betancourt was taken during her 2002 presidential campaign.

Americans Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves were captured after their plane crashed during a 2003 anti-drug mission.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping more than 20 years ago, is popular in Colombia for his US-backed crackdown on the rebels.

REUTERS SZ RK1242

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