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Freed hostages in Venezuela

  • Story Highlights
  • Two released Colombian hostages land in Venezuelan capital
  • Hostages hug and kiss relatives on the tarmac at Caracas airport
  • Red Cross helicopters picked up the women from jungle location
  • Planned release collapsed on New Year's Eve; reason disputed
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(CNN) -- Two hostages freed by Colombian rebels have landed in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where dozens of their friends and family carrying flowers clapped and embraced them.

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Former hostage Clara Rojas, right, reunited with her mother, Clara Gonzalez de Rojas.

The pair are Consuelo Gonzalez, a Colombian politician who had been in custody for more than 6½ years, and Clara Rojas, an aide to fellow hostage and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The rebels have not agreed to release Betancourt.

Rojas kissed her white-haired mother, who was using a walker and wearing a cross on a necklace.

She pulled back a few inches to gaze at her and say a few words, then pulled her close for another embrace.

Gonzalez was handed a child who appeared too young to have been alive when she was last free, then was handed a cell phone on which she began to talk.

She then embraced her daughter Maria Fernanda. "It's the best day of my life," Maria Fernanda told a reporter afterward. "This is a dream become reality."

Many of the relatives greeting Rojas and Gonzalez wore T-shirts reading "Liberty for everyone!" -- a reference to the several hundred remaining hostages. Video Watch the hostages as they see their relatives for the first time »

After the tramac reunion, they were taken to the presidential palace, where Chavez embraced them both repeatedly.

The two women were freed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

They were picked up by two Red Cross helicopters and flown to the Venezuelan border town of Santo Domingo, where they strode about 100 yards to a waiting jet, which took off a few minutes later for Caracas.

Both women thanked Chavez in telephone conversations videotaped by the rescuers. "You're helping us, president, return to life. Thank you, Mr. President," Rojas said.

Gonzalez urged him to continue his efforts to free the others being held. "You can't let your guard down," she said. "Those who remain would say that. We have to keep on working."

Doctors had been standing by, but it didn't appear that they were needed. "They appear well," said Terry Robins, a Red Cross representative who accompanied them on the trip. "They were smiling in the helicopter."

Chavez announced the release at a news conference while the Red Cross helicopters were en route to a jungle location pickup point in Colombia.

Yves Heller , a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said, "I believe that it is a great day for these people. We are going to continue working for the victims of this conflict."

The FARC is a leftist insurgent force that has sought to overthrow the Colombian government since the late 1960s.

It holds about 700 hostages in the jungles of Colombia. Last year, the group struck a deal with Chavez to release three of them -- Gonzalez, Rojas and Emanuel, Rojas' 3-year-old son by one of the rebels.

The FARC blamed a New Year's Eve collapse of the deal on Colombian military activity, but the Colombian government said that the rebels called off the deal because they didn't have Emanuel in custody -- the boy had been in foster care in Bogota for two years.

FARC has justified hostage-taking as a legitimate military tactic in a long-running and complex civil war that also has involved right-wing paramilitary units, government forces and drug traffickers.

The group's captives include three U.S. contractors who were captured when their plane went down in 2003 during a drug-eradication flight.

Betancourt, a one-time French-Colombian independent presidential candidate, and Rojas were kidnapped in February 2002 after venturing into rebel-held territory.

"I'm happy for them both," Yolanda Apulecio, the mother of Betancourt, said of the freed hostages. "Every day, I dream of the day that I'm going to see her and embrace her. This that we are living shouldn't ever happen to anybody."

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Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's defense minister, told reporters he hoped that Thursday's operation turns out to be the first of many.

"I hope that they continue liberating the hostages that they still have," he said. "This is only two of the 700 they have." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.

All About ColombiaHugo ChavezFARC

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