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Sarkozy greets Betancourt in Paris

4/07/2008 - 16:50

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

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 sent the plane to takeBetancourt'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 decided against ahazardous commando-style rescue.

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

A devout Catholic who made a wooden rosary in the junglethat she used to pray with, Betancourt will meet Pope Benedictas soon as his schedule allows, the Vatican said on Friday.

BLANKET MEDIA COVERAGE

Betancourt's release has received blanket media coverage inFrance, which took her plight to its heart over the past sixyears, embracing her as one of its own.

After leaving the airport, Betancourt met some of thecampaigners who held countless marches for her during hercaptivity, at a reception at the presidential Elysee Palace.

French media reported that she would undergo medical checksat a Paris hospital on Saturday.

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

The French government was consequently kept in the darkabout the Colombian rescue mission, unlike the United States,and Sarkozy was informed Betancourt had been freed only 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, calling Sarkozy'sefforts to mediate with the FARC "useless".

"Any controversy or political gain would be totally out ofplace because Nicolas Sarkozy had absolutely nothing to do withher liberation," she told radio reporters on a visit to Canada.

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.

Sarkozy's allies said the criticism was out of place.

"(Colombian President Alvaro Uribe) wasn't always in favourof all the French initiatives," Foreign Minister BernardKouchner said on RTL radio. "This is a victory for (Uribe)without any doubt, but it is not a defeat for others," headded.

(Additional reporting by Laure Bretton and Crispian Balmer)

(Writing by Crispian Balmer and Estelle Shirbon; editing byAndrew Dobbie)

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