Political sniping as Betancourt arrives

4/07/2008 - 14:43

By Crispian Balmer

PARIS (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician IngridBetancourt will get the red carpet treatment when she fliesinto Paris later on Friday, but a domestic political spat overher daring release risked souring the atmosphere.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla are expectedto be at the airport when Betancourt, who was rescued onWednesday after six years in the hands of leftist Colombianguerrillas, arrives with her family on a special French flightfrom Bogota.

Sarkozy has 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 had extracted her from the jungle.

Sarkozy's rival in the 2007 election, Socialist politicianSegolene Royal, was swift to jump on this and warned her oldopponent not to make political capital out of the situation.

"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.

"It was inelegant of Segolene Royal to dare to say such athing," said Jerome Chartier, a parliamentarian and member ofSarkozy's UMP party.

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.

The French state dispatched an official aircraft to Bogotawithin hours of her release, carrying family members who livein Paris as well as the French Foreign Minister BernardKouchner.

Kouchner told RTL radio on Friday her liberation wasclearly a personal success for Colombian President AlvaroUribe, who has always adopted an uncompromising approach indealings with the FARC and ruled out any negotiations.

"He wasn't always in favour of all the French initiatives,"Kouchner said on Friday. "This is a victory for (Uribe) withoutany doubt, but it is not a defeat for others," he added,refusing to get involved in any controversy over the affair.

"Often in this job as foreign minister there isn't muchpleasure, well this time there is and I am going to enjoy it."

(Additional reporting by Laure Bretton; Editing by MatthewJones)

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