France’s Sarkozy in fresh bid to release of Colombian hostage



French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to announce a new initiative in his diplomatic drive to win the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (pictured above) as a hostage, his office said on Tuesday.


An announcement on the "important initiative" was expected in the coming hours, said a spokesman from the Elysee presidential palace.


France has stepped up efforts to try to win the release of Betancourt, a joint Colombian-French national who is said to be gravely ill after six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle.


Betancourt, 46, was captured in February 2002 by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while campaigning for the Colombian presidency.


France has said it is ready to take in FARC rebels who could be released from jail as part of a prisoner swap that the Colombian government has offered in exchange for Betancourt's freedom.


The Marxist FARC, which has been fighting the Colombian government for more than 40 years, is believed to be holding more than 700 people hostage in the jungles of the Latin American state.


Betancourt is among 39 high-profile hostages, including three US defence contractors, whom the FARC wants to exchange for 500 rebels held in prison.


The president of a Betancourt support group in France said Betancourt was on a hunger strike since February 23 and called for urgent action.


"A hunger strike in a hospital can be very dangerous, but in the middle of a jungle, it can be fatal," said Arnaud Mangiapan after meeting Sarkozy at the Elysee on Tuesday.


The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and support groups for Betancourt separately issued a joint appeal to Colombia to stop all military operations against rebels.


President Alvaro Uribe must "order an immediate end to all the military operations that threaten the lives of people held hostage by the FARC," wrote the FIDH and the support groups in an open letter to Uribe.


"It is with immense concern that we have noted that military operations and bombing continue and are intensifying in the regions where it is presumed that the FARC hold people in captivity," they wrote.


The FIDH said in its letter on Tuesday that if Betancourt or others died because of Colombian army attacks, "you (President Uribe) will no longer be the democratic leader you aspire to be but the torturer of these defenceless people."


Concern about Betancourt's health grew in recent days after reports that the FARC took her to medical facilities in late February, prompting France to put a plane and a medical team on standby in case she is freed. (AFP)