Colombian Rebel Leader Nixes Release for Ailing Betancourt

A senior rebel leader ruled out the unilateral release of an ailing French-Colombian hostage, casting doubt on the mission of French diplomats and doctors who flew to Colombia on Thursday to save her life.

Rodrigo Granda, the rebels' foreign relations chief, did not mention the French plane sitting on the tarmac in Bogota, but suggested the French had no deal with the rebels for the release of Ingrid Betancourt, 46, who was kidnapped while running for president of Colombia six years ago.

"Only as a result of a prisoner exchange will those who are held captive in our camps go free," Granda said in a statement posted Thursday on a Web site friendly to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Betancourt's plight has taken on added urgency since another hostage who spent months with her was released in February, telling The Associated Press she has hepatitis B and a tropical skin ailment. Colombian news media have reported this week that she is at death's door, giving few details and citing unidentified peasants who say they have seen her.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe vowed to make "all possible efforts" to help win Betancourt's release. His armed forces chief, Gen. Freddy Padilla, said the military is prepared to facilitate the French mission, which includes two doctors and two diplomats.

But Padilla said the French team, which hopes at least to offer medical treatment to Betancourt, doesn't even know where she is.

French officials in Bogota and Paris refused to comment Thursday.

"Discretion is required in this type of case," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said.

Granda's statement did not explicitly rule out a chance for the French doctors to treat Betancourt in captivity. It also did not rule out a prisoner swap.

Betancourt's husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, held out a shred of hope that the French know more than they are saying.

"Maybe they have information we don't know about," he told The Associated Press. "Maybe they have information."

Feeding into that theory was former Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez, who said she doubts French President Nicolas Sarkozy would deploy the team without having a deal with the FARC.

"The fact that President Sarkozy's government has sought authorization for the humanitarian medical mission to visit makes me think that they already made contact with the guerrillas," Ramirez was quoted as saying by the Mexican newspaper Reforma.

But even as the team's Falcon 500 jet waited at a Bogota air base, a Web site sympathetic to the FARC suggested the humanitarian mission would fail.

"Where would the delegates of the president of France ... go? Where would the helicopters land? Who would give the coordinates?" a posting on the site read.

In France, the risks for Sarkozy appeared minimal. Betancourt's cause is so popular there that the greater risk for the French president would be to let her die without attempting every possible maneuver to free her. After marches and rallies, Betancourt has become so well known in France that a simple "Ingrid" is enough to evoke her plight.

Sarkozy and Betancourt's son have said she is dying, but haven't said how they know that. Some Colombian commentators have speculated they are exaggerating the state of her health to pressure the FARC.

"I am not certain that she is as bad as she is said to be, because I've seen no evidence," said Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist newspaper Voz.
Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, facilitated recent releases of other FARC hostages, but is not involved in this mission. Spain and Switzerland support the mission, but their roles are not clear.

The mission resembled one the French mounted in 2003, although the earlier effort was secret. Then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who had been Betancourt's teacher in France, sent a Hercules C-130 plane to Brazil to fetch Betancourt amid word that she was ill and the rebels would free her. The mission ended in failure, and the FARC said it had never planned to release her.

The FARC has a track record of spurning humanitarian efforts to free their hundreds of hostages. Some are held for ransom and others — mostly politicians, soldiers and police — are held to pressure the government to free jailed rebels.

In 2001, a cancer-stricken boy begged Colombia's guerrillas to release his father, a kidnapped policeman, so he could spend his final days with him. Children mailed letters to the rebels asking them to grant Andres Felipe's wish, and prominent Colombians offered to temporarily take the father's place in captivity to help fulfill the child's dying wish.

The rebels refused, and the boy died without seeing his father.

A year later, the rebels shot and killed the father during an apparent escape attempt.