Farc rules out release of 'gravely ill' Betancourt as French mission arrives

Andrew Gumbel
Friday 04 April 2008 00:00

A French mercy mission landed in Colombia yesterday in a high-stakes effort to get medical help to Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate held by anti-government Farc guerrillas for the past six years and who is now believed to be gravely ill.

A French Air Force plane carrying two doctors landed in the Colombia capital, Bogota, only to wait for hours in the hope that someone, somewhere would authorise them to continue their journey to the remote jungle area where Ms Betancourt – a dual national with French as well as Colombian citizenship – is believed to be held.

She is suffering from hepatitis B and could be in imminent danger if she does not receive a blood transfusion, her son says.

Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, said his government was making "all possible efforts" to secure the 46-year-old Mrs Betancourt's release.

However, a message put out on the internet by a senior rebel leader suggested that might be too much to hope for. Rodrigo Granda, Farc's foreign relations chief, said the group was ruling out the unilateral release of any hostage and was pressing instead on a prisoner exchange with the government. That seemed like an ominous sign, since the Colombian government has already offered to free hundreds of Farc fighters in exchange for Mrs Betancourt's freedom.

Mrs Betancourt was kidnapped, along with her campaign manager, during the 2002 presidential campaign, when she insisted on meeting the Farc leadership even though talks between the rebels and the government had broken down, and a previously safe demilitarised zone became fair game for combat again.

Since then, the French government has made strenuous efforts to secure her release. In 2003, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, a former teacher of hers, sent a plane to Brazil in the hope of getting her out, but to no avail. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has offered to go to Colombia himself if it would help her cause. He has also appealed directly to Farc's leader, Manuel Marulanda.

Yesterday, while attending the Nato summit in Bucharest, Mr Sarkozy said he had news of the mission but could not divulge it. "Given the sensitivity of the this issue," he said, "I don't want to say more."

The French hope they can replicate the success of Venezuela's populist leader, Hugo Chavez, who secured the release of Mrs Betancourt's former campaign manager, Clara Rojas, as well as a former congresswoman, in a helicopter rescue staged in January – after several false starts. He also secured the release of four more hostages at the end of February.

Those released captives gave a grim assessment of Mrs Betancourt's health, describing her as "exhausted physically and in her morale". Former congressman Luis Eladio Perez said: "Ingrid is mistreated very badly, they have vented their anger on her, they have her chained up in inhumane conditions."

Shortly after that, she was reported to have stopped taking her medication and gone on hunger strike. That coincided with an unauthorised Colombian government raid into Ecuador, where Farc's chief spokesman and 24 others were killed. Any détente permitting further hostage releases came to a swift end.

Rumours in the past few days have suggested Mrs Betancourt was in hospital or otherwise no longer in captivity, but no credible official has managed to confirm those sightings.

"I have the same information. It's all just rumors. There is nothing specific," said Bishop Guillermo Orozco Montoya of San Jose del Guaviare. The Guaviare state, in the jungles of southern Colombia, is where Mrs Betancourt is believed to be.

Mrs Betancourt is one of hundreds of hostages held by the Farc as part of their long-running feud with the government and the Colombian military. Her release has become a cause célèbre in France, where her ex-husband and two children have campaigned heavily to raise awareness. Spain and Switzerland were also involved in yesterday's attempted mercy mission.

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