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Chavez To Meet With Pastrana

March 19, 2001

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday that he will meet soon with his Colombian counterpart, amid rising tension between the South American neighbors.

Diplomatic relations, already tense due to allegations that left-leaning Chavez maintains clandestine ties with Colombian rebel groups, were further hurt last week when the Venezuelan government admitted to capturing and then releasing a Colombian hijack suspect.

Chavez said he would meet with Colombian President Andres Pastrana as early as this week ``to ratify our friendship, brotherhood, and the relations of peace, cooperation and closeness between our two governments.″

A spokeswoman at the Colombian presidential palace in Bogota, however, said the talks were tentatively scheduled for April 6 or 7 in Caracas.

Chavez, speaking during his weekly radio program ``Hello President,″ insisted that relations with Colombia were good and did not refer to the case of Jose Maria Ballestas.

The suspected leftist guerrilla is accused of helping hijack an Avianca flight in April 1999 and holding its 42 passengers and five crew members for ransom.

Ballestas was arrested at a Caracas shopping center by Interpol and Venezuelan police officers on Feb. 13 _ and then freed moments before he was to be deported.

No one has explained exactly why, but Colombia has accused Chavez’ government of releasing Ballestas as a favor the guerrillas.

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