Author`s name Alex Naumov

Chavez visits France to broker humanitarian deal in Colombia

The Venezuelan president cancelled a meeting with businessmen to discuss the release of a French citizen held in captivity by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

As crude prices reach their maximum in history, the president of oil-rich Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, refused to discuss trade issues during his visit to Paris and focused in his efforts to broker an humanitarian deal in Colombia. After meeting his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday, Chavez announced that he received a letter from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC) stating that hostages held in captivity for years were alive, including the former French-Colombian hopeful in 2002 presidential race, Ingrid Betancourt.

“I can assure that Mrs. Betancourt is alive”, an enthusiastic Chavez told reporters after meeting Sarkozy. The news is music for Sarkozy’s ears as he has made securing the release of Betancourt one of his foreign policy priorities, as Chavez hopes to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the rebels.

Later Chavez and Sarkozy met relatives of former Colombian presidential candidate Betancourt, who was kidnapped along with her campaign aide Clara Rojas in February, 2002. Neither Betancourt nor Rojas have been heard from since 2003.

The letter from the FARC came as Colombia's government increased the pressure on Chavez overnight by saying in a statement it was giving Chavez until the end of the year to broker a deal with the FARC. The Marxist FARC wants rebels held in government prisons to be freed in exchange for its most high-profile captives, including Betancourt and three U.S. contract workers held for years in jungle camps.

Chavez visit to Paris in an optimistic air about the Colombian issue, but French leader Sarkozy was urged to confront his Venezuelan counterpart on the alleged lack of freedoms in the South American nation. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international non-governmental organisation devoted to freedom of press, has urged Sarkozy to take up the issue of press freedom with his visiting Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez.

In a letter to Sarkozy, the secretary general of the press watchdog, said Chavez's mediating efforts 'must not be allowed to eclipse his government's serious abuses or his behaviour on the international stage.' 'Rarely has a president posed so many obstacles to free expression in such a short space of time,' RSF head Robert Menard wrote.

Chavez arrived in Paris from Tehran, where met Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and signed about 200 bilateral agreements ranging from trade issues to cooperation in culture and education areas. There, both leaders declared: “The era of the US Dollar imperialism is dead”, as the US currency falls against the Euro.

Hernan Etchaleco