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Report: France paid ransom for Betancourt release

Latest update : 2008-07-08

Citing an email found on the computer of the FARC rebels' former N.2, Colombian television claims the French government paid a ransom for Ingrid Betancourt's release in 2003, though Paris immediately denied the allegations. (Report: C. Westerheide)

Click here to view our special report: "Ingrid Betancourt rescued"



The Colombian government said Monday it was looking into opening direct contacts with Marxist FARC rebels in a bid to win the freedom of scores of hostages still held by the guerrillas.


"We are going to set in motion steps for a direct contact to see if we can move forward," the government's peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo told radio La W, adding Bogota had lost confidence in international mediators sent by France and Switzerland.


The move came just days after a Colombian military operation freed French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages, in a rescue mission that passed off without a single shot being fired.


Restrepo said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had told two European mediators in the country that the government "has no confidence in their work."


The pair, Swiss Jean-Pierre Gontard and Frenchman Noel Saez, "have appeared on many occasions to be more like political advisors to the FARC than facilitators," he added.


The Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has waged a four-decade battle against the Colombian government and is believed to be still holding hundreds of hostages, mainly Colombians, in their jungle hideouts.


Betancourt was rescued on Wednesday after six years in captivity, along with three US defense contract workers and 11 Colombian soldiers.


She was the most high-profile hostage still being held by the rebels, but despite years of international maneuvers, in the end she was liberated by a Colombian-planned and executed operation.


Restrepo said the government was seeking contact with top FARC chief Alfonso Cano, saying "it's a good moment for Mr Cano to accept direct talks."


He revealed that in the past three years, Colombia had established "direct contact" with FARC's political leader Pablo Catatumbo, and would now attempt to reactivate that contact to reach Cano.


"We've already had someone tell Mr Catatumbo that we're ready" to talk, he added.


Restrepo said Uribe on June 27 had told the European mediators they had "undermined the government's trust" in their efforts.


"I think that for many years the work of the two facilitators has, apart from their willingness, produced no result and, what's more, the two of them have been manipulated by the FARC," Restrepo said.


Information recovered from the computer of the FARC's former number two, Raul Reyes, who was killed on March 1 by a Colombian military mission in Ecuador, showed the two European envoys had been "very seriously" compromised.


Restrepo said the documents singled out Gontard as the "carrier" of a 500,000-dollar FARC payment that was seized in March in Costa Rica. He said the money apparently was a ransom payment.


"Transporting and handing over money to an organization which is outside the law, would seem to have nothing to do with mediation," Restrepo added.


Betancourt, 46, on Sunday sent a radio message to all the hostages still in the hands of FARC rebels, as she recovered in Paris, her sister said.


She said on Colombian radio that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had "pledged to keep working for their release," her sister Astrid told AFP.


Bogota said the captives were rescued after Colombian soldiers posing as rebels arrived at a FARC jungle hideout and tricked guerrillas into handing them over.


But a Swiss report later emerged claiming the bloodless operation was arranged in advance by bribing the hostages' guards with 20 million dollars (12.7 million euros).


In response Colombia's military released a video of the hostages sobbing with joy aboard a helicopter upon discovering they were free.


On Sunday, Saez, the French representative sent to Colombia to negotiate with FARC, confirmed to AFP that he had met with the guerillas just two days before Betancourt's liberation.


Saez -- a French former consul to Bogota -- said he was forced to leave two days before the handover as the FARC stalled in talks and told him and his Swiss counterpart to "wait a few days" for a response.


But Betancourt told France 3 she did not believe the local FARC commander was paid to hand over the hostages.


"When I saw him on the ground with his hands and feet tied and his eyes blindfolded, the expression on his face, on his mouth, it was not of someone who had been bought. He was mortified," she said.


Date created : 2008-07-08