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Latest update : 2008-02-24

Brazil's President Lula da Silva could help negotiate the release of FARC hostages, French FM Bernard Kouchner said during his visit to Colombia.

BOGOTA - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could help broker a deal to free hostages held for years in jungle camps by Colombia's Marxist rebels, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Thursday.

Kouchner was visiting Colombia as part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's attempts to secure the freedom of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate held by FARC guerrillas for six years.

Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has led mediation efforts with the FARC and last month won the release of two hostages, but the U.S. foe has upset Colombia and the United States by showing political support for guerrilla commanders.

After meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Kouchner said Brazil's Lula could join attempts by France, Switzerland and Spain to broker a hostage deal.

"Both President Uribe and President Sarkozy have excellent relations with Lula and they have talked about collaboration and a path they both could take toward freeing the hostages," he said.

"Before, this was a Colombian problem ... now there is political concern in Latin America," he said, adding that other countries in the region might also get involved.

The FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- is holding dozens of hostages it wants to swap for rebels in jails. The captives include Betancourt and three American contractors snatched five years ago on a counter-drug mission.

Started as a peasant army fighting for socialism in the 1960s, the FARC has been weakened by Uribe's U.S.-backed security drive and violence from the conflict has waned.

Uribe has welcomed international efforts for negotiations, but the U.S. ally is popular at home for his tough stance against the FARC, who are labeled drug-trafficking terrorists by Washington and Europe.


Betancourt, a former lawmaker with dual nationality, was caught by the FARC on a remote rural road in February 2002 as she campaigned for the presidency. Recent rebel videos show her looking thin and despondent in a jungle camp. In a letter sent to her mother, she said: "We live like the dead."

Guerrillas recently announced a plan to hand over three former lawmakers to Chavez, and Kouchner said a fourth ailing captive could also be freed. In January, the rebels freed two female hostages to a Venezuelan delegation.

But Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo warned the FARC could seek to put pressure on Uribe through slow releases rather than reaching a deal to free all key hostages. 

Chavez won praise for brokering the initial release, but he angered Bogota by demanding the FARC get more political recognition. Colombia had initially invited him to help as a negotiator, but later ended his formal participation and charged him with favoring the guerrillas.

"They are doing this to strengthen the image of Chavez as key to a humanitarian solution while seeking support for him from countries to press Uribe to accept him again as a mediator," Restrepo said in a statement.

Attempts to broker a broader hostage deal have been stalled over a rebel demand Uribe demilitarize an area the size of New York City to facilitate a hand over. But Uribe says that would allow the FARC to regroup and offers a smaller safe haven under international observation.

Date created : 2008-02-22