Sarkozy willing to come to Colombia for hostage’s freedom


France asked Venezuela for help on Friday with a hurried mission to free an ailing hostage held by Colombian rebels, but Hugo Chavez said he is powerless to act until Colombia and the US back off their hunt of a rebel leader.


France announced that President Nicolas Sarkozy is willing to travel with Venezuela’s leftist president to the Colombian-Venezuelan border to try to secure the release of Ingrid Betancourt. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made the announcement in an interview with Associated Press Television News.


Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who also has French nationality, is in her seventh year of captivity in the jungles of southeast Colombia. She is among hundreds of people, including three US contractors, held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.


Chavez, who negotiated earlier FARC hostage releases, said he wants to help, but indicated the United States and Colombia should first stop trying to catch the rebel commander known as Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC’s ruling secretariat.


“We have information which indicates that agents from governments of Colombia and the United States are hunting Ivan Marquez,” Chavez said in Caracas late Thursday. He suggested the United States is using “very advanced technology ... they have satellites and so on.”


In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he does not know who Marquez is. Asked about Chavez’s suggestion that US actions could lead to progress toward the hostages’ release, Casey said: “I’m not sure what he’s referring to.”


In March 2006, the State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million (Dh18.35 million) for information leading to the arrest of any of the FARC secretariat’s seven members.


The US Embassy, which has overseen the delivery of billions of dollars in counterinsurgency aid to the Colombian military, had no reaction.


On Friday, Chavez told a Caracas news conference he would continue to work for the freedom of FARC hostages but would no longer speak about his efforts.


A French government jet remained at an air base in this Andean capital after landing on Thursday to rescue Betancourt – or at least provide her with medical attention.


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has offered “all possible efforts” to help, but the mission has made no apparent headway. Spain and Switzerland support the humanitarian mission, which the rebels have not publicly discussed.


Astrid Betancourt, the hostage’s sister, said the French flew to Colombia “without having any pre-agreement with the guerrillas,” motivated by rumors that she is gravely ill.


“That’s why they sent this plane, to see if this initiative would provoke a reaction in the FARC, but knowing it was very unlikely,” Betancourt told Colombian radio on Friday from Paris. “That way they wouldn’t later have to say, ‘We didn’t go and something happened.’”


Colombian news media have reported this week that the 46-year-old hostage is at death’s door, quoting unidentified peasants who say they have seen her. Another hostage who spent months with her and who was released in February said she has hepatitis B and a disfiguring skin disease spread by sand flies.


Rodrigo Granda, known as the FARC’s “foreign minister,” said in a message posted on the web on Thursday that the rebels would release no hostages unilaterally and that they would be freed only as part of a swap for jailed rebels.


A French diplomat said in Paris on Friday that Granda’s statement was made March 19, before the humanitarian operation was planned. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.


Still, relatives of other hostages were devastated by Granda’s message.


“It filled us with sadness,” said Claudia Rugeles, wife of a former governor kidnapped by the FARC in 2001. “One always is hoping for these initiatives to obtain freedom, and we had been hoping for a positive response from France’s.”


A new wrinkle was added to efforts to free Betancourt on Friday, when Interpol issued a “red notice” for Granda’s capture in connection with a kidnapping and killing in Paraguay. As a wanted man, Granda would be unable to travel freely to participate in any prisoner-hostage swap.


The warrant was made public on Interpol’s website at Paraguay’s request.


A US congressman long involved in Colombian affairs said any serious effort to secure a release must be done by “quiet diplomacy.”


“Chavez making public pronouncements is maybe nice theatre but is not moving the ball forward,” said Rep James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a telephone interview. (AP)