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COLOMBIA - HOSTAGES

French jet 'returns' without Betancourt

4 min

A Falcon 900 sent to French Guyana to prepare for a possible evacuation of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt is heading back to France, according to local media reports, dampening hopes of her immediate release.

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President Nicolas Sarkozy put a plane and medical team on standby to help French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt if she is freed by Colombian rebels, his office said Sunday, amid fears for her health.

A Falcon 900 plane is ready to leave France at any time to fly Betancourt to hospital where she would receive urgently-needed medical care, said a presidential spokesman.

"The president has given the order that a plane and medical team be ready at any moment to take Ingrid Betancourt to hospital if she is released," said a presidential spokesman.

"This plane... is on the mainland territory and can take off immediately if developments warrant it," he said.

A similar plane had landed Friday night in French Guiana but left on Sunday, according to military officials in Cayenne.

Betancourt, who holds French and Colombian citizenship, was abducted in February 2002 by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

She is reportedly gravely ill, suffering from hepatitis B and leishmania, a skin disease caused by insect bites.

In Bogota, Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin called France's latest announcement "welcome."

The guerrillas holding Betancourt in the jungle for the past six years "must understand that a humanitarian gesture is required," Holguin told the private radio Carocol.

Meanwhile French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Paris was ready to welcome imprisoned FARC rebels released by Colombia.

"France is ready to do whatever is necessary to allow the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and the reception of FARC activists who are part of this effort," Fillon told TF1 television.

A statement from the Elysee presidential palace earlier said that Sarkozy had decided "as a precautionary measure and so that she may quickly receive the appropriate care and be taken as soon as possible to hospital if she is freed, to pre-position a plane and medical team in Guiana."

But her former husband Fabrice Delloye told AFP that he feared she was "either dying or already dead."

"What worries me most is the latest statement by the Colombian government, and I wonder if they have information that we do not have and are in the process of shielding themselves."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Friday pressured FARC rebels to free hostages including Betancourt after his government offered what amounted to a prisoner swap.

Betancourt is among 39 high-profile hostages, including three US defence contractors, whom the FARC wants to exchange for 500 rebels held in prison.

Uribe promised an amnesty and payment from a 100-million-dollar state fund to those who obeyed and renounced their membership of FARC, which Bogota has been fighting for four decades.

"For the time being, there is no concrete information that would make us hopeful of an imminent release," said the Paris-based committee of Betancourt supporters in a statement.

Sarkozy, who has taken a close interest in Betancourt's case, offered last month to personally pick her up and warned rebels that her suffering was "a martyrdom that was being inflicted on France."

In an interview to Colombian television earlier this month, Sarkozy appealed directly to FARC leader Manuel Marulanda for Betancourt's release.

"It's up to him to decide how he wants to appear to the entire world: look like an assassin or like someone who has had the courage to make a humanitarian gesture," the French president said.

Concerns about Betancourt's health increased in November when Colombia released videos seized from rebels that for the first time in years showed the hostage sitting in the jungle, looking frail and gaunt.

 

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