Paris denies orchestrating bid to free Farc hostage

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France has been accused of disregarding the Colombian government to try to negotiate the release of a politician who has been held hostage by Marxist guerrillas for more than a year.

Paris has denied the accusations but has admitted it sent a military transport aircraft to the Brazilian-Colombian border earlier this month on a "humanitarian" mission that has not been fully explained.

By coincidence, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, was in Colombia yesterday to sign an anti-drugs cooperation agreement, also involving Britain and Spain. Whilst in Bogota, M. Sarkozy was attempting to smooth over a three-way row between France, Colombia and Brazil.

The dispute centres on the fate of Ingrid Betancourt, 41, a Colombian anti-drugs and corruption campaigner who stood as the Green candidate in the Colombian presidential election last year.

Mme Betancourt - also a French citizen and the former wife of a French diplomat - was taken hostage by the Marxist Farc guerrillas while campaigning in a remote area in February last year. Her case has become a cause célèbre in France, not least because she is a friend - and former pupil - of Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister.

According to the Brazilian press, France made a spectacular but unsuccessful attempt earlier this month to negotiate Mme Betancourt's release. The weekly newspaper Carta Capital - citing Brazilian government sources - said that a French C-130 Hercules transport aircraft flew to a town in the Brazilian Amazon, 600 miles from the Colombian border. The newspaper alleged that there were weapons on board, which the French government hoped to exchange with the Farc guerrillas for Mme Betancourt.

Those allegations have been dismissed as a "tissue of inanities" by Alain Rouquié, the French ambassador to Brazil, who has, none the less, been called in by the Brazilian authorities to explain what is going on. Daniel Parfait, the French ambassador to Bogota, confirmed that the Hercules had flown to the Brazilian town of Manaus on a "humanitarian operation". He denied there had been contact between France and the guerrillas.

According to the Brazilian press account, the French officials aboard the C-130 claimed diplomatic immunity to prevent the aircraft from being searched by the Brazilian military. The newspaper said that the 16 or so French officials and crew on the plane included Pierre-Henri Guignard, who is the deputy head of the private office of the Foreign Minister, M. de Villepin. The presence of such a senior official on a "humanitarian" mission is unusual, to say the least. M. Guignard's involvement has not been denied by the French Foreign Ministry.

Colombian officials have described the incident as a "very serious affair". The plot has been thickened by comments made by Mme Betancourt's sister, Astrid. She told the French news agency, Agence France Presse, that she had received a message early this month that Ingrid needed medical help. She said she contacted the French authorities, who told her that a plane was flying to Manaus in Brazil, with a "medical team" on board.

Astrid Betancourt said she had waited for nine days - between 5 and 14 July - on the Brazilian-Colombian border, hoping her sister might be released, but heard no more.

M. Sarkozy told journalists when he arrived in Bogota this week that there had been "a glimmer of hope" at that time but that the "hopes had been dashed". He added: "The liberation of Ingrid Betancourt remains a priority for the French government, but the less said about it the better." Colombian authorities have long been annoyed by the pressure from France on behalf of Mme Betancourt. They point out that Farc holds more than 70 political and military hostages - and an estimated 3,000 hostages in all, including several foreigners. The Marxist guerrillas are demanding the release of their own prisoners, held by the Colombian authorities. Officials in Bogota insist negotiations with Farc must take in all the hostages.

Individual deals would be counter-productive, they say.

Privately, French officials and Mme Betancourt's family fear the authorities are in no hurry to see the return of the former presidential candidate and senator, who campaigned vigorously against political corruption and drugs trafficking.

Mme Betancourt was born in Bogota, of a partly French family. She studied in the 1980s at the elite Parisian political academy, Science-Po, where she was a pupil of M. de Villepin. She married a French diplomat but returned to Colombia to enter politics in 1990.

She campaigned - successfully - for a seat in parliament, using a campaign poster that compared her to a condom. Just as condoms were the best defence against Aids, she said, she would provide the best defence against corruption, which was the "Aids of Colombia".

Last year, she stood as a Green candidate in the presidential election but was kidnapped by the Farc guerrillas before election day when she was campaigning in the remote south of the country.