French minister launches new bid for Colombian hostage release

29th April 2008, Comments 0 comments

The foreign minister wants Bogota to reinstate arch foe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as mediator to arrange for release of hostages.

29 April 2008

BOGOTA - French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is on a tour of Latin America trying to restart stagnating efforts to win the release of hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, held for years by leftist rebels.

France wants Bogota to reinstate its arch foe, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as mediator to arrange an exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas - something President Alvaro Uribe has flatly ruled out.

Kouchner met for 45 minutes late Monday with Uribe and his top advisors, but emerged from the meeting tight-lipped.

He travels Tuesday to Ecuador to meet President Rafael Correa in Quito, then on to Caracas.

"It was a polite, intense meeting. Kouchner delivered a letter from his government to President Uribe, and Uribe promised to reply soon," a source in the Colombian presidency told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity and refusing to give further details.

Kouchner arrived in Colombia Monday and met first with Yolanda Pulecio, Betancourt's mother, and two recently released FARC hostages, Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Eduardo Gechem.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been fighting Bogota for four decades, snatched Betancourt in February 2002, as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency.

A month ago, France sent an airplane with a medical team on board to southern Colombia to treat Betancourt, amid fears she was gravely ill. But the FARC rebuffed the gesture and refused to allow access to its captives.

Recently released photographs of Betancourt in her jungle captivity showed her looking painfully thin and wan.

Any attempt to win release of more hostages must involve Chavez, Piedad Cordoba, a lawmaker who also attended the meeting with Betancourt's mother, said afterward.

"I don't know if President Chavez is willing, but by necessity this has to pass through his hands," Cordoba said.

Uribe said earlier Monday his government would accept only the Catholic Church or three European countries - France, Spain and Switzerland - as mediators for the hostage exchange.

FARC has rejected both. It considers the church biased and believes the Europeans may have been the source of information that led Colombia to locate and bomb a FARC camp on 1 March, killing their second-in-command.

Uribe in November ended mediation efforts by Chavez and Cordoba, accusing them of making too many concessions to the guerrilla group. But in a surprise move, FARC released a total of six hostages to envoys from Caracas in January and February.

Chavez said Sunday he has lost all contacts he had with the rebel group.

Cordoba and others have said that negotiations were progressing well for more releases but that the 1 March bombing put an end to the talks.

Uribe has refused FARC's preconditions for negotiating a prisoner swap - demilitarising 800 square kilometres in southwest Colombia for 45 days, and allowing freed rebels to return to FARC ranks.

[AFP / Expatica]

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