updated 4/1/2008 4:36:11 PM ET 2008-04-01T20:36:11

Colombia's president said Tuesday he had approved a French mission to try to meet with hostages held by leftist rebels, including gravely ill politician Ingrid Betancourt.

The mission would be "to protect the deteriorating health of the hostages," President Alvaro Uribe said.

Betancourt, who holds both French and Colombian nationality, is being held along with dozens of other hostages by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC.

In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had called Uribe to inform him France was sending a humanitarian mission "without delay to contact the FARC and obtain access to our compatriot," his office said.

Uribe said once Colombia's military has the coordinates of the location for any meeting between the French delegation and the rebels, it will temporarily suspend military operations in the zone.

Earlier Tuesday, Uribe implored the rebels in a televised message to free Betancourt, whom he said was in danger of dying.

Betancourt, who has spent six years in captivity, is said to be suffering from Hepatitis B and a skin disease.

Pleas on behalf of Betancourt
In a televised message to rebel leader Manuel Marulanda, Sarkozy said the latest information about the health of Betancourt is "profoundly alarming."

"Ingrid is in danger of imminent death," Sarkozy said. "Since only a decision from you to save this woman from death is needed ... Take this decision. Free Ingrid Betancourt."

The rebels want to swap Betancourt and dozens of other hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors, for all FARC rebels imprisoned in Colombia and the United States.

Getting Betancourt freed has become a cause celebre in France.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon reiterated last week that France was prepared to take in FARC rebels freed from prison in exchange for Betancourt. The deal was first put forth in December. France has a medically equipped aircraft standing ready to fly to Betancourt's rescue, the president's office said over the weekend.

'Rendezvous with history'
In the highly personal message, Sarkozy said Marulanda "has a rendezvous with history" and a crime on his hands if she dies.

His appeal was subtitled in Spanish.

"France awaits only a signal from you to quickly organize ... a humanitarian mission," the French leader said.

In a clear effort to induce a positive decision from the FARC leader, Sarkozy said that freeing Betancourt would "open perspectives for peace" while failing to do so would be a "grave political fault on top of a humanitarian tragedy."

Sarkozy met earlier Tuesday with the head of a support committee to free Betancourt. Arnaud Mangiapan said he has "relatively reliable" information that she is on a hunger strike, begun Feb. 23.

Sarkozy made no reference to this claim, and there was no way to verify it.

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