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Bid to free hostage could gild Sarkozy image

Some French hostages have died in captivity, or in total anonymity. President Nicolas Sarkozy does not want that to happen to Ingrid Betancourt.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some French hostages have died in captivity, or in total anonymity. President Nicolas Sarkozy does not want that to happen to Ingrid Betancourt.

If Sarkozy's bid to free the ailing Betancourt, held by Colombian rebels, succeeds where past efforts failed, the payoff will be hero status for the French leader in a painful saga that has dragged on for more than six years.

If it fails, it will be the rebels, the president has said, who have blood on their hands.

Betancourt "has a close connection with France. She is part of the good Parisian society ... a poor woman in the jungle with the bad guys," said Philippe Moreau-Defarges of the French Institute for International Relations, explaining the clamor to free her.

But it is not just Sarkozy's image that is the impetus for the rescue effort on behalf of Betancourt, who has dual French-Colombian nationality.

The son and daughter of the 46-year-old Betancourt live mainly in Paris, as does her sister, married to France's former ambassador to Colombia, Daniel Parfait. Ingrid's ex-husband, Fabrice Delloye, is a former diplomat, and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was her teacher.

From the start, Betancourt's case has received priority treatment. Sarkozy inherited the situation from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, but has made it a more public affair. After Sarkozy shepherded the release of Bulgarian medics imprisoned for years in Libya last summer, he vowed to make Betancourt his next target.

On Wednesday night, Sarkozy sent a mission, including two doctors, sponsored by Spain, Switzerland and France in hopes of contacting Colombia's FARC rebels to provide Betancourt urgent medical care and, ultimately, free her.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, holds hundreds of hostages and wants to use them as currency to free its imprisoned members.

France has upped the ante, saying it is willing to take in jailed members of the FARC in exchange for Betancourt.

How far will Sarkozy go?
Sarkozy is even prepared to travel to the country's jungle border with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to fetch Betancourt if she is freed, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told AP Television News on Friday.

Sarkozy "is taking the risk of appearing ridiculous," Moreau-Defarges said. Already Colombia's news media have questioned the wisdom of the hasty mission.

But, with his popularity rankings at home flagging, Sarkozy "can still say 'I'm a hero,'" if the mission succeeds, Moreau-Defarges added.

A Betancourt support group and her children, Lorenzo and Melanie, have kept her memory alive for the public with news conferences, appeals and marches. Nationwide marches for Betancourt are planned this weekend.

But it may be the weight of ranking personnel in France's power spheres that has given the "Free Betancourt" cause a decisive edge.

Betancourt is said to be suffering from Hepatitis B and a ravaging skin disease, among other ailments, and Sarkozy said in a personal appeal to FARC leader Manuel Marulanda that her death could be "imminent."

Not all hostages have received such attention.

'They do lots of things for Ingrid'
Another French-Colombian hostage, Aida Botero de Duvaltier, died while captive to a far smaller Colombian rebel group, the Popular Liberation Army, which abducted the 67-year-old woman in March 2001. The family paid a ransom and in 2005 dropped 50,000 leaflets urging anyone with information about her to come forward.

Remains thought to be hers were found in 2006, but there was never a public campaign.

"There was nothing at all," said Madeleine Duvaltier, sister-in-law of the hostage. "They do lots of things for Ingrid Betancourt because it's Ingrid Betancourt. That's all."

Betancourt, abducted in 2002, is not a nobody. She was a presidential candidate in Colombia at the time of her abduction. And she was ensconced among the elite in France.

Betancourt's case "has become ... an (affair) of state in the sense that the French public considers her an idol and any president would take into account pressure from the French public," said Jacques Thomet. A former journalist in Bogota, Thomet is the author of "Ingrid Betancourt: Tales of the Heart or the State?"

Failed try
A botched attempt to free Betancourt was organized in 2003 under Villepin, then French foreign minister. It raised tensions between Paris and Bogota because Colombia was kept in the dark.

Betancourt's family here says the high-profile campaign may save her.

"With all this international pressure ... we know the FARC cannot allow anything irreparable to happen to Ingrid ...," Astrid Betancourt, the hostage's sister, told reporters Friday. "We cannot do anything but hail this gesture by France."

France has freed other high-profile hostages elsewhere in the world, including journalist Florence Aubenas, held in Iraq for 157 days and freed in 2005.

Researcher Michel Seurat, abducted in Lebanon in 1985, was killed. Villepin, the former French prime minister, also a close friend of Seurat's family, choked back tears as he received the remains in 2006.