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Chavez boosts image in messy Colombian mediation

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has improved his international image by mediating with Colombian rebels to release high-profile U.S. and French hostages despite a sputtering start to talks.

His diatribes typically distance him from Western governments. Outside Latin America, he focuses much of his foreign policy on cozying up to other U.S. antagonists such as Iran, Belarus and Russia.

But the chance in recent weeks to aid his neighbor, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has brought immediate diplomatic gains even though he has failed to arrange a first meeting with the FARC guerrillas.

Chavez won praise in telephone calls with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America met his foreign minister for the first time and 41 European nations issued a statement supporting his efforts.

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