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Ingrid Betancourt marks sixth year in rebels’ grip

   BOGOTA, February 22, 2008  – French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt
marks Saturday her sixth year of jungle captivity in the hands of leftist
rebels appearing physically weakened and mentally drained by her ordeal.
   Betancourt has become the international face of Colombia’s hostage crisis,
with the governments of France and Venezuela drawn into failed bids to get the
Marxist FARC rebels to free her and dozens of other captives.
   Her family has been highly critical of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s
handling of the hostage situation, fearing that he favors rescuing the
hostages militarily rather than negotiating a deal with the guerrillas.
   "There is an extreme sense of urgency and we must quickly get Ingrid out of
the jungle," her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, said after a video emerged in
November showing Betancourt looking despondent and extremely thin.
   "I am in constant fear that the government will learn where Ingrid is and
order the army to launch bombs," she said.
   Betancourt’s family has been in frequent contact with the administrations
of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo
Chavez, hoping they can mediate an exchange of hostages for rebel prisoners.
   The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) want Uribe’s government
to release 500 prisoners in exchange for Betancourt, three American military
contractors and 39 other high-profile hostages.
   But the rebels and government have failed to agree on how to conduct the
swap. The FARC want the government to demilitarize a huge swath of territory,
a demand vehemently rejected by Uribe.
   The FARC, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United
States, European Union and Colombian government, has been accused of
trafficking cocaine and is estimated to hold more than 700 people hostage.
   Uribe had named Chavez as a mediator last August, but the conservative
Colombian leader withdrew his support three months later after his leftist
neighbor ignored his request that he not speak directly to his generals.
   Chavez has nevertheless continued to negotiate with the FARC, which handed
two hostages, including Bentacourt’s campaign manager Clara Rojas, to his
government in January.
   The unilateral release, and FARC’s announcements this month that it would
release four more hostages, has families of the other captives a glimmer of
   "The FARC have opted this time for direct mediations with foreign
governments like Chavez’s," said Leon Valencia, director of the New Rainbow
Foundation, which specializes in peace issues.
   "By favoring mediation with foreign governments, it is possible that the
FARC release Ingrid to Sarkozy’s government in exchange for an initiative to
take them the off the European list of terrorist groups," he said.
   Chavez has angered the Colombian government by urging the European Union
and Latin American nations stop branding the FARC terrorists, calling the
rebels a "real army" with a political project that deserves respect.