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Ex-lawmakers freed by FARC arrive in Venezuela

  • Story Highlights
  • Four former politicians held by FARC for almost 6 years
  • Ex-hostages met by relatives in Caracas, Venezuela
  • Rebels freed two hostages last month in deal brokered by Hugo Chavez
  • Ex-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt remains in captivity
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(CNN) -- Four former Colombian lawmakers arrived in Venezuela on Wednesday after being released by the guerilla group that had held them captive in the jungle for nearly six years.

"You've given me the opportunity to start living again," said ex-hostage Gloria Polanco after arriving in Venezuela. "I was dead in this life, but now you friends and loved ones have come for us and I am happy."

Also freed Wednesday were Luis Eladio Perez, Eduardo Gechem and Orlando Beltran.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped broker the release of the hostages.

The ex-legislators are among an estimated 750 hostages the Armed Revolutionary Forces has held -- many for several years -- in the jungles of Colombia.

The rebel force released two hostages last month in a deal also brokered by Chavez. His left-wing political philosophy comes much closer than that of Colombia's rightist leaders to the doctrines of the FARC, a force organized in the 1960s as a Marxist army intent on overthrowing the Colombian government.

FARC released the hostages into the custody of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ICRC spokeswoman Barbara Hintermann said two doctors were with the ICRC team that traveled via helicopter to pick up the four from near the Columbian jungle town of San Jose del Guaviare.

"It seems that there are no emergencies," she said, adding that all four appeared to be in good enough health to travel first to the Venezuelan border town of Santo Domingo and, from there, to the capital city of Caracas, where their relatives were waiting.

Perhaps the highest-profile captive remaining in FARC custody is Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen and former candidate for the Colombian presidency. She was kidnapped on February 23, 2002, after she and a campaign manager ventured into rebel-held territory despite warnings from the Colombian military. Her campaign manager was among those released last month.

Perez, a former Colombian senator, said he last saw Betancourt on February 4 and that she was in poor health.

"It's a question of time," said Perez, who said he and Betancourt managed to escape the watch of their guards and visit for about five minutes. "We need to take immediate action to obtain Ingrid's liberation."

Three U.S. citizens also have been held in FARC custody for more than five years. They are defense contractors who fell into rebel hands after their plane went down during a drug-eradication flight in 2003.

To facilitate the transfer, Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos said Colombian troops agreed to refrain from entering the area where the release occurred until 6 p.m.

Yves Heller, an ICRC spokesman in Bogota, said FARC leaders guaranteed security to the ICRC personnel, to whom it also gave the coordinates identifying where the politicians would be found.

Heller described the effort as "an excellent collaboration" among the ICRC and the Venezuelan and Colombian governments.

The United States, the European Union and Colombia call the FARC a terrorist organization. They have resisted calls from Venezuela to lift that label in light of last month's release of a former Colombia congresswoman and a former candidate for the vice presidency who had each been held for about six years.

Days after that release, the rebels kidnapped six tourists whose boat had come ashore on Colombia's Pacific Coast.

The FARC has justified hostage-taking as a legitimate military tactic in a long-running and complex civil war that also has involved right-wing paramilitaries, government forces and drug traffickers. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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