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Tuesday, August 10, 1999 Published at 06:50 GMT 07:50 UK

World: Americas

Venezuelan hijack passengers released

Pilot Hector Hernandez (left) shortly after his release

By Jeremy McDermott in Bogota

Eight passengers from a Venezuelan plane hijacked at the end of last month have been released by Colombian guerrillas.

Watch Jeremy McDermott's report
The passengers from the twin-engined Beechcraft, which was hijacked on 30 July, were returned to Venezuelan soil on Monday afternoon by Colombian Marxist rebels.

The plane and two pilots were released on Sunday.

President Hugo Chavez appeared on television thanking the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for their humanitarian gesture in releasing the plane, passengers and crew, skipping over the question of who was responsible for the hijack.

[ image: Co-pilot Luis Biggott was also released at the weekend]
Co-pilot Luis Biggott was also released at the weekend
The FARC claim that they found the plane in the remote border province of Arauca and that the hijackers fled when they arrived.

The pilot of the plane told a different story, saying the hijackers greeted the guerrillas warmly and stayed with the group for several days in the FARC camp.

Colombian authorities maintain that the FARC did carry out the hijacking, then, realising the public relations disaster it entailed and the potential damage it could do to relations with Venezuela, concocted the story of the hijacking having been committed by opponents of the Venezuelan President.

With this incident, President Chavez has again revealed his sympathy for the guerrilla movement and has made no secret of his eagerness to play a role in the peace process between the FARC and the Colombian Government.

His stance, however, is unlikely to endear him to the Colombian authorities.

The peace process is frozen and public support for the FARC almost non-existent as they have responded to government concessions by escalating the war and taking kidnapping to an all-time high.

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