Colombia says Chavez only hope for hostage release

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BOGOTA, Nov 22 (Reuters) Colombia said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be the only person who can obtain the release of hostages held by Colombian guerrillas because the rebels respect the left-wing leader.

Chavez, who has carved out a role as a regional leader, has raised hopes his socialist credentials can persuade guerrillas to talk after Bogota authorized him in August to seek the release of hostages, including a French-Colombian politician and three US contract workers held for years.

President Alvaro Uribe's remarks keep the focus on the Venezuelan leader who Colombia says has until year-end to show progress in his attempts to broker a deal with Latin America's oldest ongoing rebel insurgency.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, want to exchanges jailed fighters for around 50 key hostages they are holding.

Attempts to win release of captives snatched by the FARC are stalled over guerrilla demands Uribe create a demilitarized zone and include two rebels held in US jails in any exchange of prisoners.

''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 yesterday.

''They wouldn't hand them over to the church, they wouldn't hand them over to the UN, they wouldn't hand them to France, so let's see if they hand them over to President Chavez, of whom they speak well,'' he said.

His comments followed weeks of exchanges between Caracas and Bogota over how Chavez has handled his role as a facilitator authorized to seek negotiations with guerrillas. Chavez met recently with FARC delegates in Caracas.

Uribe, popular for his US-backed crackdown to reduce violence from the conflict, accuses the FARC of using the negotiations to gain political points and rejects a rebel demand for a demilitarized zone for talks inside Colombia.

But this week, Uribe offered to allow Chavez to visit FARC commander Manuel Marulanda at a meeting zone under international observation in Colombia if the rebels first release a few hostages as a sign of good faith.

The international community is also demanding the FARC produce proof its hostages are still alive.

Among the FARC's high-profile captives are Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen captured in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency, and three Americans caught on a counter-narcotics mission in 2003.

REUTERS TB BST0450

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