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Betancourt gets hero's welcome in Paris

4/07/2008 - 21:41

By Estelle Shirbon

PARIS (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician IngridBetancourt was given a hero's welcome on Friday in France,where President Nicolas Sarkozy had made her release a foreignpolicy priority and thousands had campaigned for her freedomfor years.

Betancourt, 46, was rescued on Wednesday by the Colombianmilitary after more than six years in the jungle as a captiveof leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces ofColombia (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. The Sarkozy couple hugged Betancourtand held her hands before also embracing her relatives.

"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 and in favour of a bloodlessruse.

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

Thousands of supporters waited for hours to see Betancourtat Paris city hall, where a giant image of her had beendisplayed on the facade since 2004.

"I think it's time for this horror to come off the wall," asmiling Betancourt said just before cutting down the image ofherself, looking thin and ill in captivity. The ecstatic crowdcheered and chanted her name over and over.

REJECTS RANSOM REPORT

Despite her exhaustion, Betancourt, who said she had notslept at all since her release on Wednesday, gave three publicspeeches, a news conference and a live television interview.

She repeatedly said she did not believe a report broadcaston a Swiss radio station according to which the FARC hadreceived $20 million to free her and 14 other hostages and thedaring rescue operation was faked.

"I don't think that what I saw was faked ... When thehelicopter took off and the two (FARC) commanders wereneutralised, the joy of all of us and especially the joy ofthose who commanded the operation was no fiction," she said.

Betancourt lived in France in her youth and has dual Frenchnationality thanks to a now annulled marriage, and after herkidnap France embraced her as one of its own. Countless marchesand demonstrations were staged on her behalf for six years.

On Friday dozens of her anonymous supporters cheered andwept at a reception for Betancourt at the presidential Elyseepalace, where she hugged and kissed them as Sarkozy beamed.

He had actively sought her release since he took officelast year, pressing for negotiations with her captors andurging the Colombian authorities 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.

Sarkozy's rival in the 2007 election, Socialist SegoleneRoyal, was swift to jump on this, calling his efforts"useless". But she was then widely criticised for sounding anegative note.

"(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 him withoutany doubt, but it is not a defeat for others," he added.

(Additional reporting by Laure Bretton and Crispian Balmer)

(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Richard Balmforth)

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