Bogota, Colombia Chased by the U.S.-backed armed forces, this country's largest rebel group is under pressure to surrender from a surprising new source - President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela.
During his nine years in office, Chavez regularly has expressed support for the rebels. Just months ago, he was pressing for diplomatic recognition for the group, known by the acronym FARC, which the U.S. government regards as a terrorist organization.
But Chavez surprised analysts and government officials when he advised the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to unconditionally release more than 700 hostages, lay down their weapons and make peace after 44 years of fighting.
"At this stage in Latin America, a guerrilla movement is out of order," Chavez told viewers of his "Hello President" television program Sunday. He called on the FARC leader known as Alfonso Cano to release hostages in a humanitarian gesture "in exchange for nothing."
Colombian officials said Chavez's statements might signal a change in his approach. Interior minister Carlos Holguin told reporters he was surprised but happy to hear Chavez's statement. The U.S. government, which often ignores Chavez's anti-U.S. rants, quickly took note.
"Those are certainly good words," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Under a program called Plan Colombia, Colombia has received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to fight the FARC and other armed groups. "We would encourage Venezuela to follow those good words with concrete actions."