Sarkozy says Betancourt near death and must be freed

1/04/2008 - 20:49

By Swaha Pattanaik

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy onTuesday asked Colombia to halt military operations against FARCguerrillas to help a "humanitarian mission" secure access tohostage Ingrid Betancourt, who he said was close to death.

Sarkozy telephoned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shortlyafter making a televised appeal addressed to FARC leader ManuelMarulanda urging him to release the 46-year-old mother of two.

"He told (Uribe) of his intention to send a humanitarianmission without delay to make contact with the FARC and obtainaccess to their fellow-countrywoman," Sarkozy's office said ina statement, without giving any further details on the mission.

"He asked the Colombian president to suspend all form ofmilitary operations to ensure the security and success of thismission."

Uribe said Colombia would halt military operations in thearea once the mission provided coordinates of the area where itwould treat hostages who are sick after years in jungle camps.

"President Sarkozy has told me the humanitarian mission isin movement to attend to the health of the hostages," Uribesaid in Bogota. It was unclear if the French mission hadstarted.

"Once authorities are informed by the mission about thecoordinates ... we will allow this mission to do its work."

Any successful mission to treat the captives would be thefirst contact for years with some of the hostages, whom FARCrebels say they want to exchange for jailed guerrilla fighters.

Betancourt has joint French and Colombian nationality.

Sarkozy's televised appeal to the FARC, in French withSpanish subtitles, underlined the importance attached to thecase in France, where Betancourt's photograph is displayed ontown halls as a reminder of her six-year ordeal.

"The latest information reaching us regarding IngridBetancourt is profoundly worrying," he said in a statementbroadcast on French television and addressed to FARC leaderManuel Marulanda.

"Ingrid is in danger of imminent death. She no longer hasthe strength to resist an interminable captivity which isturning into tragedy," Sarkozy said. "You, who lead the FARC,you have a rendezvous with history. Don't miss it. Free IngridBetancourt and the weakest hostages".

According to a support committee spokesman, Betancourt isbelieved to have begun a hunger strike on February 23.

"She began a hunger strike more than a month ago. A hungerstrike in favourable surroundings is very dangerous. In thejungle, it's fatal," Arnaud Mangiapan told reporters at theFrench president's palace.

"It's obvious that for Ingrid, it's a matter of absoluteurgency now," he said.

Attempts to secure a deal to free hostages, who alsoinclude three Americans, are deadlocked over a rebel demandthat Uribe demilitarize an area in the south of Colombia for asafe haven to facilitate talks.

But the FARC has released six captives in a deal brokeredby Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said France would bewilling to take in former guerrilla fighters as part of apossible deal to free FARC hostages including Betancourt.

A spokesman for Sarkozy said at the weekend a plane withmedical supplies would be kept on standby in France ready tointervene "at any time" if a hostage deal could be reached.

(Reporting by Swaha Pattanaik, James Mackenzie andElizabeth Pineau in Paris, Patrick Markey in Bogota, editing byMary Gabriel)

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