BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Leftist rebels in Colombia should release all hostages in their custody as a first step toward laying down their weapons, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Sunday.
Chavez said the rebels should stop fighting and end a war that has riven Colombia for more than 40 years, killing tens of thousands.
"The guerilla's war has passed into history," he said, according to the Bolivariana News Agency.
His comments came just months after he urged the international community to recognize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as a legitimate insurgent force rather than a terrorist organization, as the United States and European Union consider it.
Meanwhile, the rebels have suffered major setbacks recently, and Chavez has faced accusations of funneling them money to finance their war.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- known as the FARC, for its acronym in Spanish -- holds an estimated 750 hostages in the jungles of South America, including a former Colombian presidential candidate and three U.S. defense contractors. Many have been held for years.
The group has defended the taking of hostages, including ailing former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, as a legitimate technique in the conflict.
"The time has come for the FARC to release all the hostages," Chavez said in a televised address Sunday. "It would be a grand humanitarian gesture."
The leftist president helped engineer the release this year of six hostages held by the FARC, a Marxist insurgent army that has sought to overthrow the Colombian government since 1964.
Yet Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has accused Chavez of providing at least $300 million to the rebels, citing evidence Colombia seized on a computer recovered after a military operation killed the FARC's second-in-command on March 1. U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Florida, has proposed adding Venezuela to a list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
Authorities in Colombia acted with surprise to Chavez's remarks.
"He was their defender and ally and so it's surprising that he has acted like this," said Carlos Holguin, Colombia's interior minister. "I hope FARC hears him -- that all of Latin America hears him."
Colombian Sen. Martha Lucia Ramirez welcomed Chavez's comments.
"This call is the product of the information found on the computer of Raul Reyes," she said. "It's a pity that President Chavez has waited so long to understand that he should be more on the side of the interests of Colombia and of the hostages than the FARC."
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the Colombian civil war, which involves the leftist FARC, right-wing paramilitaries, the armed forces and drug traffickers.
In the last few months, three of the FARC's most senior leaders have died, and a fourth has surrendered.
Manuel Marulanda, alias "Tirofijo" (Sureshot), the FARC's founder, is said to have died of natural causes in March.
The group's second-in-command, Luis Edgar Devia Silva, also known Raul Reyes, was killed when Colombian forces bombed a rebel camp just inside Ecuador on March 1. He was the first member of the FARC's leadership council to be killed in combat.
About a week later, a subordinate shot and killed another member of the council -- Ivan Rios -- also known as Manuel de Jesus Munoz. The subordinate then walked for 15 days to turn himself in to authorities.
Yet another senior leader, Nelly Avila Moreno -- also known as "Karina" -- surrendered in May.
On Sunday, Chavez said he was suggesting to the FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano, that he release hostages and stop fighting. He said their continued activity gave imperialist powers an excuse to continue intervening in Latin America.
CNN's Fernando Ramos contributed to this story
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