- FARC - health - hostages - Ingrid Betancourt
Arriving in France to a rapturous welcome Friday, former Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt dismissed a report that the FARC rebels were paid millions of dollars to free her and 14 other hostages.
Betancourt’s dramatic rescue Wednesday after more than six years in captivity followed an undercover infiltration operation by the Colombian military, according to Colombian officials.
No shots were fired during the mission, which has been hailed as a major boost for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and a testament to the sophistication of the Colombia’s intelligence operations.
But on Friday, Radio Suisse Romande, a Swiss radio station reported that two FARC rebels guarding the hostages were paid 20 million dollars as a bribe to have them betray the group.
The guards, according to the report, “were in reality bought for a high price, and the whole operation afterwards was a set-up”.
Questioned about the report by FRANCE 24’s Caroline de Camaret, Betancourt said she had no reason to be suspicious of the official Colombian version of the events.
“I don’t think I could be easily duped,” said the former Colombian presidential candidate, who was running against Uribe in the 2002 campaign when she was abducted by FARC rebels. Referring to her rescue mission, she noted that “the joy of chief of the rescue mission was not fictitious, it was genuine”.
Her jailer, she said, who was flung naked on the rescue plane floor during the operation did not sport a “rictus” of someone who had received a ransom. Far from it, she claimed, he looked “ashamed” and “frightened”.
US and Colombian officials deny report
Speaking to reporters in the Colombian capital of Bogota Friday, US Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield flatly denied the report.
“How much did we give ... for the release of the three North American hostages?” said Brownfield. “Zero. Nothing. Not one dollar, not one peso, not one euro. Absolutely nothing,” he said.
Colombian military commander Freddy Padilla, the man behind the carefully planned rescue mission, also denied the news report. In an interview with a Colombian radio station Friday, Padilla maintained that the Colombian authorities “did not pay a single cent” for the hostage release.
Colombia's defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, also denied the reports, and on Friday the country's military showed a video of the rescue operation to counter questions about the military's dramatic and bloodless mission.
Santos told reporters that reports that 20 million dollars had been paid as ransom were "absolutely false" and that the operation had been all arranged in advance with a rebel in charge of the hostages.
The video showed hostages angry and resigned at having their hands bound, and then minutes later sobbing with jubilation aboard a helicopter upon discovering they had been freed.
Santos said the video was taken by a Colombian soldier posing as a journalist accompanying the supposed transfer operation. They said he was there to distract FARC leaders on the ground by interviewing them.
"I owe everything to France"
Less than 48 hours after her rescue and joyful reunion with her children Mélanie and Lorenzo, 22 and 19, and other family members in Bogota , Betancourt arrived in France to an emotionally charged welcome ceremony at a French military airport Friday.
“I am back home,” said Betancourt in an address delivered on the tarmac of the Villacoublay Airport near Paris, where she arrived on board a French presidential plane, “because France is my home.”
A round of applause greeted the 46-year-old freed hostage as she emerged from the plane dressed in a dark suit and walked down the flight of stairs to be warmly embraced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Flanked by her family and the French first couple, a visibly moved Betancourt thanked the French people for a concerted awareness campaign waged during her years in captivity. “For seven years I dreamed of living this moment, of breathing the air of France, of being with you,” she said, choking back tears. “I owe everything to France.”
Betancourt, who spent much of her formative years in France, has been a cause célèbre in the country since her abduction.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for so long,” said Sarkozy as he welcomed Betancourt back home. “All of France is delighted.”
Betancourt calls for release of other hostages
At a reception hosted in her honour at the Elysée palace later on Friday, Betancourt called on Sarkozy to continue to push for the release of hundreds of hostages still being held by the Marxist FARC rebels.
“I need him to go back to Colombia,” she said as the French president looked on. “He must talk again with Uribe,” she said, before mischievously adding, “because now, we love him, don’t we?”
In the past, Uribe was frequently vilified for his refusal to engage with the FARC rebels, a position that earned him taunts, particularly from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who dubbed Uribe a “warmonger” for his hardline stand on the leftist guerrillas.
Betancourt’s dramatic rescue, accomplished by Colombian military infiltration into FARC rebel ranks, has boosted Uribe’s standing in the international community and in France in particular.