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Caracas regrets Colombia move to oust Chavez from hostage talks

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BUENOS AIRES, November 23 (RIA Novosti) - Venezuela's government regrets the Colombian leader's decision to end President Hugo Chavez's mediation role in hostage release talks with rebels, the Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced on Wednesday that the outspoken left-wing Venezuelan leader would no longer be involved in mediation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after Chavez broke protocol by directly contacting the Colombian army chief, General Mario Montoya, to discuss the issue.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said that in his role as a go-between, Chavez has "managed to make substantial progress in brokering the release of the hostages," but that the decision to oust him from the mediation process was "Colombia's sovereign right".

Chavez also angered his Colombian counterpart by meeting with a top FARC commander in Caracas on November 8, and by publicly revealing details of a conversation with Uribe, who he said had privately expressed his willingness to meet with the head of FARC, Manuel Marulanda.

Alvaro Uribe set December 31 as the end date of Chavez's mediation.

FARC, a communist revolutionary group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, continues to hold dozens of foreign hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who ran for president in Colombia in 2002. She has been held prisoner for almost four years.

Three U.S. citizens - Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, and Keith Stansell, were captured by FARC rebels in early 2003.

FARC wants the release of hundreds of imprisoned rebels in exchange for the hostages, but has so far failed to provide evidence the captives are alive. Colombia has openly considered launching a military operation to free the prisoners, but the idea has been strongly criticized by the hostages' families.

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