A French mercy mission to Colombia to treat an ailing French-Colombian hostage held for years by Marxist rebels was clouded on Thursday by uncertainty.
A French Falcon 50 jet sent by President Nicolas Sarkozy was standing by at a Bogota military airbase since dawn, ready to fly to hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian politician who also holds French nationality, should her captors allow it.
But there was no immediate sign of the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) responding to the French overture, which was coordinated with the Colombian government, as well as Spain, Switzerland and, initially, the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Indeed, a Colombian news agency considered close to the FARC, ANNCOL, issued an editorial calling Sarkozy's mission "naive" and deploring the ICRC's participation. It said it doubted Sarkozy's sincerity.
A source in Sarkozy's office admitted earlier there was no guarantee the rebels would grant access to Betancourt, and said: "We have had no reply from the FARC."
On a trip to Romania Thursday, Sarkozy declined to give any details of the mission as it unfolded.
"I have news, but given the sensitivity of this issue, I don't want to say more. The mission is underway," he said.
On Tuesday, he had publicly pleaded with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to release Betancourt, saying he feared that she would die in captivity.
The French-Colombian was snatched by the rebels six years ago, as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency.
She is believed to be suffering from hepatitis B and leishmania, a skin disease caused by insect bites.
Videos seized from the rebels in November showed her looking gaunt and frail. According to Colombian reports and witness accounts, she has been refusing food and medical care from the FARC from the past five weeks.
Betancourt is one of a group of 39 hostages which also includes three US defense contractors and several Colombian politicians that the FARC wants to exchange for 500 rebels held in prison.
The French jet in Colombia was carrying at least four people, among them medical personnel. A source close to the mission said the team included a French diplomat previously based at Bogota, Noel Saez.
The aircraft had been refueled and was ready to fly to the southeast Colombian town of San Jose del Guaviare, although no flight permission had yet been requested, Colombian radio station Caracol reported.
A resident in the San Jose area – a dense jungle zone – has told officials he saw Betancourt just over a week ago, listless and escorted by FARC insurgents.
An AFP reporter in the town of 65,000 said preparations were underway at the airport to receive the French jet, should it arrive.
Colombia's top military commander, General Freddy Padilla, said he would put helicopters at the disposition of the mission if requested by the Red Cross.
"We would do so happily," he told reporters.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's government has agreed to suspend military operations against the FARC to allow the deployment of the mission, but has insisted the French team informs it exactly where it is headed.
The ICRC's representative in Colombia, Barbara Hintermann, has distanced her organization from the French-led operation, saying the rebels have given no sign of complying with its goal.
"This is an initiative by France and Switzerland. The ICRC is not involved for the moment. We need agreement from all the parties to act," she said.
Hintermann added though that the ICRC "is prepared to facilitate any initiative that could result in the liberation of the hostages."
The ICRC was involved in the release of six other FARC hostages to Venezuelan teams earlier this year.
Uribe's administration has in recent weeks been stepping up pressure on the rebels.
On March 1, it launched a raid inside neighboring Ecuador to kill the number two FARC leader, Raul Reyes.
Last week, the government suggested it would release an unspecified number of rebels from prison if Betancourt were freed.
The Marxist guerrilla movement has been fighting government forces for more than 40 years and controls huge swathes of the country.
It finances itself through the illegal drug trade and hostage-taking, and is believed to be holding in total more than 700 people. (AFP)
Doubts cloud French mercy mission to Colombia