France sends plane to wait for Ingrid Betancourt

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The Independent Online

A French presidential jet, carrying a medical team and emergency medical equipment, was waiting on a runway in French Guyana last night for the possible release of the Franco-Colombian jungle hostage, Ingrid Betancourt.

Renewed efforts are under way to persuade the left-wing Farc guerrillas to release the 46 years old former Colombian presidential candidate, who is said to be seriously ill.

Although French and Colombian authorities declined to say whether a release was imminent after six years in captivity, her international support committee said that the dispatch of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Falcon 900 executive jet was a hopeful sign.

“Things are pointing in the right direction,” said Olivier Roubi, vice-president of the international pressure group for Mme Betancourt’s release. “We can only hope that negotiations are in progress to secure her liberation.”

Fears for Mme Betancourt’s life have grown in recent days with reports from the Farc’s jugle hideouts that she is seriously ill, suffering from malnutrition and hepatitis-B.

Mme Betancort has joint French and Colombian nationality. As a Green senator in the Colombian parliament, she was running an anti-drugs and anti-corruption campaign to be President when she was kidnapped on a road just south of Bogota in February 2002. She is one of hundreds of hostages held by the Farc, ranging from well-known politicians to villagers and soldiers.

Her fate has become a live political issue in France. Successive French governments have made efforts to win her release. President Sarkozy promised during his election campaign last Spring that he would succeed where others had failed.

The Elysée Palace said yesterday that it had sent the Falcon 900, which usually takes the President on overseas trips, to await events at an airfield near Cayenne, the capital of French Guyana.

“Information on the state of Ingrid Betancourt’s health, and possible dealings for her liberation, led the President…to pre-position a medically equipped aircraft in Guyana, ready to intervene at any moment,” the Elysee Palace said.

There have been a series of false hopes for Mme Betancourt’s release in the last four months. The international federation of Ingrid Betancourt support committees expressed concern yesterday that a mis-step by the Colombian authorities might ruin chances of her liberation.

The federation was alarmed by a statement by the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, on Saturday during a trip to San José del Guaviare, in the south eastern part of the country where Mme Betancourt was last seen alive last month. President Urive ordered his troops to “locate the hostage-takers” and said that any Farc rebels who gave themselves up with their prisoners would be given a new life in France.

The support federation fears that such statements could undermine recent offers by Bogota to negotiate with Farc. The federation yesterday urged the president to avoid all military action which could block Mme Betancourt’s release.