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Sarkozy welcomes Betancourt to Paris

4/07/2008 - 16:11

By Estelle Shirbon

PARIS (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician IngridBetancourt landed in Paris on Friday to an emotional welcomefrom President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made her release fromcaptivity in the Colombian jungle a foreign policy priority.

Betancourt was rescued on Wednesday by the Colombianmilitary after spending six years in the hands of leftistguerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(FARC). France was not involved in the rescue raid.

Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy were on the tarmacto greet Betancourt, who arrived with her family on a specialFrench flight from Bogota. France had dispatched the plane totake Betancourt's children to be reunited with her on Thursday.

Sarkozy and his wife hugged Betancourt and held her handsbefore also exchanging embraces with her children andrelatives.

"Ingrid Betancourt, welcome. France loves you," a visiblymoved Sarkozy said in a short speech on the tarmac.

A tearful Betancourt gave credit to France for her saferelease, arguing that it was partly thanks to Frenchcampaigning that the Colombian military had opted against aperilous commando-style rescue raid.

"The extraordinary, perfect, flawless operation of theColombian army that has allowed me to be here today is also aresult of your struggle," she said.

Her release has received blanket media coverage in France,although a domestic political spat soured the celebratoryatmosphere earlier on Friday.

CONTROVERSY

Sarkozy had played an active role in seeking the liberationof Betancourt since he took office last year, pushing fornegotiations with her captors and urging the Colombianauthorities to avoid any military action.

The French government was consequently kept in the darkabout the Colombian rescue mission, unlike the United States,and Sarkozy was only informed Betancourt had been freed afterColombian soldiers extracted her from the jungle through aruse.

Sarkozy's rival in the 2007 election, Socialist politicianSegolene Royal, was swift to jump on this.

"Everyone knows that this well-executed Colombian operationproves that negotiations with the FARC (guerrillas) wereuseless and fruitless," Royal told radio reporters on a visitto Canada.

"Any controversy or political gain would be totally out ofplace because Nicolas Sarkozy had absolutely nothing to do withher liberation," she added.

Her sharp tone punctured the political goodwill generatedby the release of Betancourt, who lived in France in her youthand has dual French nationality thanks to a now annulledmarriage.

French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said: "SegoleneRoyal thinks she is always on the campaign trail. The Frenchpeople will not be fooled by her political manoeuvring."

France took Betancourt's plight to its heart over the pastsix years, enthusiastically embracing her as one of its own andstaging countless marches and demonstrations on her behalf.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who was on the planetaking Betancourt's children to Bogota and bringing her back toFrance, refused to get involved in any controversy.

"(Colombian President Alvaro Uribe) wasn't always in favourof all the French initiatives," Kouchner said on RTL radio."This is a victory for (Uribe) without any doubt, but it is nota defeat for others," he added.

- Additional reporting by Laure Bretton and Crispian Balmer

(Writing by Crispian Balmer and Estelle Shirbon)

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