Colombia ends mediation over too much Chavez talk

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BOGOTA, Nov 23 (Reuters) Colombia abruptly ended President Hugo Chavez's mediation with rebels over releasing top hostages, accusing the outspoken Venezuelan of bypassing President Alvaro Uribe by talking directly to a general.

Venezuela expressed disappointment at the sudden move.

The break-off is a blow to Chavez, who had burnished his credentials as a statesman by working for weeks to talk to the FARC guerrillas over freeing a French-Colombian politician and three US defense contractors held for years in jungle camps.

''Venezuela accepts this sovereign decision by the government of Colombia, but expresses its frustration given that in this manner the process that was being carried out with determination has been aborted,'' the Foreign Ministry said.

France, which had hosted Chavez earlier this week and praised his mediation efforts, urged Uribe to reconsider.

So did the daughter of Ingrid Betancourt, the hostage whose case French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken up personally as activists lobby across France for her release. Families of other captives also urged Uribe change his mind.

''We continue to think that President Chavez is the best chance of securing the release of Ingrid Betancourt and all the other hostages currently held by the FARC in Colombia,'' Sarkozy's spokesman, David Martinon, told reporters.

Uribe called off the mediation late on Wednesday, saying Chavez had spoken with armed services commander Mario Montoya and requested information about the hostages.

That broke protocol and violated an agreement that only Uribe and Chavez would hold discussions between the two countries about hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the government said in a statement.

Chavez is in a tough campaign for a referendum on scrapping term limits.

''It is hard to imagine how Uribe could have stayed the course with Chavez,'' said Stephen Donehoo, Latin American expert at the consultancy Kissinger McLarty Associates.

''Can you imagine (Russia's president) calling the chairman of the US chiefs of staff and asking about things? That is completely jumping borders and chains of command.'' Piedad Cordoba, a senator who connected Chavez with the general, said the decision hit like a ''cold bucket of water.'' Colombia also complained on Thursday that Chavez had met a rebel leader this month without warning Uribe.

''We cannot continue generating scenarios of good faith that have started to be used by the FARC to try to gain a platform while they continue their terrorist activities,'' Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo told reporters.

MEGAPHONE DIPLOMACY Uribe's decision is in keeping with his tough stance against rebels but could mean he now has little hope of achieving a breakthrough any time soon despite a clamor in Colombia this year for the hostages to be freed.

Under pressure to win the hostages' release, the conservative Uribe took the risky decision of turning to his ideological opposite in August to resolve the impasse.

Chavez's folksy, talkative style ended up at odds with the needs of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy in negotiations.

Uribe, whose US-backed offensive against the rebels has reduced urban violence in Colombia, had previously said Chavez might be the only person who could obtain the release of the hostages because the rebels respect the left-wing leader.

But Chavez at times revealed negotiating positions in public, drawing complaints from the Colombian government.

He several times appealed on television for Uribe to allow him to meet a rebel chief in Colombia. Uribe refused to and top officials said Chavez's tactics were counterproductive.

Earlier this week, Uribe set a year-end deadline for the mediation when Chavez revealed the Colombian president was willing to meet their leader.

On Wednesday, Uribe's patience ran out and he ended Chavez's role in a terse statement.

''The president has terminated the mediation,'' it read.

REUTERS TB BST0440

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