CARACAS — Two high-profile hostages freed by Colombian rebels Thursday after six years in captivity thanked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for arranging their freedom and joined in a jubilant reunion at the presidential palace.
Former Colombian vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former Sen. Consuelo Gonzalez hugged and kissed Chavez. Chavez held Gonzalez's granddaughter Juliana, while Gonzalez carried one of Chavez's grandchildren.
"A thousand thanks for your humanitarian gesture," Gonzalez had said earlier during the release in the Colombia's southern jungle, filmed by Venezuelan television.
"You cannot let your guard down. Those who stayed behind sent me with that message. We have to continue working. A thousand thanks!'' Gonzalez added, apparently referring to the estimated 700 other kidnap victims held by rebels in her country. They include Rojas' presidential running mate, Ingrid Betancourt, and three Pentagon civilian contractors.
The release mission, coordinated by Chavez, came after months of failed negotiations — first to win the release of some 45 high-value hostages held by the leftist FARC guerrillas, and then in December an effort to free Gonzalez, Rojas and Rojas' 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, born in captivity.
That effort collapsed when it turned out the FARC did not have the boy.
Rojas said the first news she's had of Emmanuel since he was taken from her when he was eight months old was when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe mentioned last month that the boy was in foster care. "I was the first person to be surprised when I heard that," told Colombia's Caracol radio in Caracas.
Rojas described her pregnancy — reportedly by a consensual relationship with a guerrilla fighter — and labor in captivity as "terrible." She said Betancourt was present for the birth and made him an outfit from old sweat suits, but that she hadn't seen Betancourt in four years.
On the video of their release, Rojas was shown hugging Red Cross representatives and talking by satellite phone, presumably to Chavez. "We are being reborn," she said before passing the phone to Gonzalez.
"You are helping us continue to live." Gonzalez added.
Chavez confirmed to reporters in Caracas that he had spoken by phone to the women in the jungle. "They are completely free," he said. "I said to both of them, 'Welcome back to life.' ''
Rojas also said that she and Gonzalez had brought proof of life of eight other hostages with whom they shared a jungle camp, including politicians and police and military officers.
Leaving their companions in captivity was hard, she said.
''They were all very sad, it was a heartbreaking image," she said.
She said that her captors turned her and Gonzalez over to a separate guerrilla unit for the release. That unit kept the two women on the move for 20 days until they reached the point where they were released Thursday.
The Venezuelan television video showed the two women being released to the International Committee of the Red Cross by rebels from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Gonzalez and Rojas then bade their captors farewell — even kissing some the women guerrillas goodbye — before the uniformed fighters marched back into the jungle.
Colombian Sen. Pieded Cordoba, who accompanied the women and has been part of some of the previous efforts to exchange FARC hostages for jailed rebels, said the release raised hopes for the release of other hostages.
"Today starts a battle in every Colombian municipality to get a humanitarian accord'' for hostage releases, she said.
Cuba's ambassador to Venezuela, German Sanchez Otero, who also took part in the release, said it was the responsibility of all Latin American nations to take part in the humanitarian accord.
"The heart of the planet is here," he said. "We know today it is beating hard. We hope it continues to beat that hard in the future."
The release of the two women was the most significant FARC release since Latin America's largest and oldest guerrilla freed some 300 soldiers and police officers in 2001. The FARC still holds the other high-value hostages as well as 700 others held for ransom.
The two women were picked up by two Venezuelan helicopters somewhere in Colombia's southern jungle and flown to an air force base in the southwestern Venezuelan town of Santo Domingo. From there they flew by jet to Caracas, where family members awaited them.
Rojas told Caracol Radio that her son was born in the jungle on April 16, 2004. His arm was broken during the difficult birth, she said. He was given the name Emmanuel at birth and will go back to that name, despite living in foster care for the past two years under the name of Juan David.
"I love my county," she said, adding that the fight will continue on behalf of those she left behind. "We are going to struggle for them. For Ingrid and all of them, we will expect them here soon."
The two Venezuelan helicopters, painted with the Red Cross emblem, flew early Thursday to the Colombian city of San Jose del Guaviare to refuel before going on to pick up the two women at a place the FARC had designated in a private message Wednesday to Chavez.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said earlier Thursday that his country's armed forces would suspend all ground operations in the area of the release from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time to avoid disrupting the process.
(Gunson reported from Caracas, Robles from Miami. Contributing to this report were Pablo Bachelet in Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Sibylla Brodzinsky and Gonzalo Guillen in Bogota.)