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France abandons hostage mission

Colombia's most famous hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, faces more time chained in a jungle prison while suffering from illness after France abandoned a multinational mission in the face of a snub from leftist rebels.


BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombia's most famous hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, faces more time chained in a jungle prison while suffering from illness after France abandoned a multinational mission in the face of a snub from leftist rebels.

A delegation that tried to meet with Betancourt and her rebel captors is preparing to fly out of Colombia in a French government jet. The rebels said in a statement posted Tuesday on the Internet that they would no longer unilaterally free captives.

France's Foreign Ministry later said that there was no longer any reason to keep the mission by France, Spain and Switzerland in Colombia. The jet had been waiting on a Bogota airstrip since Thursday with doctors hoping to reach the French-Colombian Betancourt, who was said to be suffering from depression and hepatitis B.

In a four-paragraph statement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia reminded the country that they had already unilaterally released six hostages this year, and repeated the same demand they have insisted on since 2005: that the government demilitarize two counties as the first step toward a large swap of hundreds of imprisoned rebels for dozens of hostages held by the guerrillas in jungle camps. Only as part of such an exchange, they said, would Betancourt go free.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he is "deeply disappointed."

"He wants to assure our compatriot's family - as well as those of all the hostages - that his determination to win their liberation remains as strong as ever," Sarkozy's office said.

From the beginning, the mission appeared high on hopes and low on planning.

It was hastily announced by Sarkozy after unsubstantiated rumours appeared in the Colombia's press pronouncing Betancourt to be at death's door.

As the plane arrived, Betancourt's family was elated. Her mother spoke of her hopes the mission would free her 46-year old daughter, finally ending her six years of captivity.

But while the delegation remained grounded in Bogota, it became clear there had been no prior co-ordination with the hermetic rebels, still reeling from the March 1 killing of their public spokesman who had served as a contact with the rest of the world, including the French.

Within days of the mission's arrival, questions arose as to exactly how bad Betancourt's health really was. The FARC appeared to feel that they were being railroaded into freeing Betancourt.

"We don't respond to blackmail nor media campaigns," said the statement issued by the FARC's ruling secretariat.

Betancourt was snatched by rebels on a lonely rural road in 2002 as she campaigned for Colombia's presidency in the country's south, a FARC stronghold.

The obstacle now to her freedom, as well others held by the FARC, including three U.S. defence contractors, is the rebels' demand for a demilitarized zone that would serve as a location for talks and any exchange.

The rebel statement said that if Uribe had agreed to the 45-day demilitarized zone, then "Ingrid Betancourt and soldiers and the jailed guerrillas would now have regained their freedom and it would be a victory for everyone."

But Uribe, whose own father was killed by the rebels, has been equally insistent that he will not pull soldiers out of the zones in southwestern Colombia.

 
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