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Europe team sent to help Colombian hostage

France, Spain and Switzerland have sent a humanitarian mission  to try to make contact with hostage Ingrid Betancourt in the Colombian jungle, the government said on Wednesday.
Image: Ingrid Betancourt
Kidnapped French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt in a photo reportedly taken by rebels and released by the Colombian government on Nov. 30. Reuters file
/ Source: news services

France, Spain and Switzerland have sent a humanitarian mission including a doctor to try and make contact with hostage Ingrid Betancourt in the Colombian jungle, the president's office said on Wednesday.

The operation is shrouded in mystery with no indication of whether FARC guerrillas holding Betancourt, who is believed to be very ill, have given it their blessing or whether a French team is already in the region.

"A humanitarian mission by the three facilitating countries, Spain, France and Switzerland, has begun, in cooperation with the authorities concerned," President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said in a statement. It did not elaborate.

Sarkozy made a direct televised appeal on Tuesday to the Marxist FARC to release Betancourt who was "in danger of imminent death," he said.

Betancourt, 46, is a former Colombian presidential candidate and has been held hostage for six years. She has dual French-Colombian nationality.

Military to hold off
Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo told local radio the Colombian government was complying with a request by Sarkozy that it suspend military operations against the FARC.

"The Colombian government has given all the necessary security guarantees," Restrepo said. "We just need to pinpoint the area where we need to suspend military operations."

French media said a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would take part in the mission and there was speculation the team might bring Betancourt to freedom. The French government refused to give further details.

Barbara Hintermann, director of the ICRC in Colombia, said the medical mission was a French initiative that would not involve the Red Cross until the FARC asked it to participate.

"We have had no contact with the FARC about this initiative," she told reporters in Bogota.

Betancourt's son, Lorenzo Delloye Betancourt, said his mother was extremely ill and urged FARC to let her go.

"Either you release mother and the other ill hostages or you will bury her in the coming hours," he told a news conference in Paris. "This will be my last appeal. We have reached the end."

On hunger strike?
According to a support committee spokesman, Betancourt is believed to have begun a hunger strike on February 23. Her son said she had hepatitis B and an infection called leishmaniasis, which meant she needed an immediate blood transfusion.

Attempts to secure a deal to free the various FARC hostages, who also include three Americans, are deadlocked over a rebel demand that Bogota demilitarize an area in the south of Colombia for a safe haven to facilitate talks.

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.

Colombia last week offered to suspend the sentences of jailed guerrillas if rebels first free their hostages and vowed not to take up arms again.

French 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.

Betancourt was campaigning for Colombia's presidency when she was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2002.