Image: Ingrid Betancourt
Handout via EPA file
Ingrid Betancourt, 46, holds dual French-Colombian citizenship and is the most high-profile hostage held by FARC. She was kidnapped in February 2002 and is reported to be very ill.
updated 4/8/2008 9:03:19 PM ET 2008-04-09T01:03:19

France called off a humanitarian mission Tuesday to treat and possibly free ailing hostage Ingrid Betancourt after Colombian rebels said they wouldn't unilaterally release any more captives.

The rebel statement seemed intended to force Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to make the next move. It also leaves Betancourt and dozens of other high-profile hostages languishing in jungle prisons and makes the prospect of peace talks ever more remote.

France's Foreign Ministry said late Tuesday that there was no longer any reason to keep the mission by France, Spain and Switzerland in Colombia. A French government plane has been waiting on a Bogota airstrip for days with doctors hoping to reach Betancourt, who was said to be depressed and suffering from hepatitis C.

In a four-paragraph statement released Tuesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia repeated what they have insisted on since 2005: that the government demilitarize two counties as the first step toward a broad hostage-prisoner swap. Only as part of such an exchange, they said, would Betancourt go free.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he is "deeply disappointed."

"He wants to assure our compatriot's family — as well as those of all the hostages — that his determination to win their liberation remains as strong as ever," Sarkozy's office said.

Uribe, whose own father was killed by the rebels, has consistently rejected pulling soldiers out of the zones in southwestern Colombia, recalling how the FARC used a demilitarized zone ceded by his predecessor to create mayhem during failed peace talks.

Hostages could languish
If no one gives in — and stubbornness is a key trait of both sides — Betancourt and dozens of other hostages likely will languish in jungle camps for a long time to come.

The rebel high command describes all this as a lost opportunity in its statement, which was written Friday, the day after a French-led medical team landed in Bogota hoping to save the French-Colombian politician's life.

"If at the beginning of the year, President Uribe had demilitarized Pradera and Florida for 45 days, Ingrid Betancourt and soldiers and the jailed guerrillas would now have regained their freedom and it would be a victory for everyone," the rebels said.

The leftist rebels have kept up their fight against elected Colombian governments for 44 years, and were unmoved by media frenzy over the effort launched by France, Spain and Switzerland. Nothing had been coordinated before the jet landed, according to the message from the FARC's ruling secretariat.

"We don't respond to blackmail nor media campaigns," the secretariat said. "The French medical mission is inappropriate."

Astrid Betancourt, the hostage's sister, saw a ray of hope in FARC's position.

"The FARC believes there's no reason for the humanitarian mission but is leaving the door open to negotiations," she told The Associated Press in Paris by phone.

Uribe has given up ground
Uribe has given some ground before. In December 2005, eight months after the rebels called for the military to leave the two counties, Uribe agreed to a proposal from France, Switzerland and Spain to demilitarize 110 square miles (180 square kilometers) of southwest Colombia. But the FARC held firm to its demand for an area more than four times bigger.

The rebels also have made some conciliatory moves — noting in their statement that they have unilaterally released six hostages this year as a "gesture of generosity and political will." But they ruled out additional unilateral releases.

"Rebels imprisoned in the jails of Colombia and the United States are our priority," said the rebel statement, posted on a sympathetic Web site.

Concerns for Betancourt's welfare have run high since released hostages who spent time with her said she is suffering from depression and hepatitis B. The daughter of a well-to-do political family, the 46-year old Betancourt apparently also has been confrontational with her Marxist captors, who mostly come from poor rural areas.

A document the Colombian government says was recovered from a dead rebel commander's laptop in March describes Betancourt as having a "volcanic temper, is rude and provokes the guerrillas who are in charge of keeping her."

The document, one of many being studied by Interpol to ascertain their authenticity, was allegedly written on Feb. 28 by Raul Reyes, the FARC's spokesman who was involved in previous hostage releases. He was killed on March 1 in a Colombian military strike across the border in Ecuador.

The rebel high command said Reyes' death marked a huge setback for reconciliation in this bloodied country.

"We profoundly regret that while we were making palpable progress for a prisoner exchange, President Uribe planned and executed the cunning murder of comandante Raul Reyes, mortally wounding the hope for a humanitarian exchange and peace."

Uribe did agree to suspend military operations for the humanitarian mission to reach Betancourt. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has assisted in hostage releases before, said he was ready to help if Colombia and the U.S. would guarantee they would not pursue the rebels.

A history of mutual distrust, empty gestures and failed peace talks didn't help this mission.

The Colombian government ceded a huge swath of territory to the rebels for peace talks that collapsed in 2002 after the FARC hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator on board. The rebels used the territory to stash hostages, launch attacks and oversee cocaine production, and the talks failed after four years without significant progress.

Also Tuesday, a court in Medellin sentenced nine rebel leaders in absentia to 40 years in prison for the executions in 2003 of a state governor, Guillermo Gaviria; former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri and eight others. Those sentenced for murder and kidnapping include top FARC leader Pedro Antonio Marin, whose alias is Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda.

The hostages were killed as a rescue team of soldiers approached their rebel camp in a botched rescue operation, which remains a key reason why nearly all families of rebel hostages oppose military rescues.

For now, the best these families can hope for is better treatment for the captives from the rebels themselves.

"If they didn't accept this French mission, then we will keep insisting to the FARC that they guarantee the health and attention that the kidnapped need," said Claudia de Jara, whose husband Alan Jara was abducted in 2001.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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