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Colombian rebels say Betancourt in good health

Published on 09/03/2004

IN THE ANDES MOUNTAINS, Colombia, Mar 9 (AFP) - Colombian rebels holding former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian national, said she was "alive and well" but turned down a French proposal for a prisoner swap, in an interview with AFP.

During an interview at an undisclosed location in the Andes mountains of Colombia, a spokesman for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s most powerful rebel group, left little hope of any imminent release of Betancourt and other hostages, including three US citizens, 20 Colombian politicians and 47 members of the armed forces.

Betancourt, kidnapped two years ago, and all the other hostages “are alive and well … but worried that there is no agreement on their release,” said FARC’s number two leader Raul Reyes.

Betancourt’s seizure has received wide publicity in France, which has offered to grant exile to any rebel freed from Colombian jails should the right-wing government and FARC agree on a prisoner-hostage swap. Paris has stressed that any exiled Colombian rebel must remain in France.

FARC has been at war with the government for four decades and is blamed for thousands of deaths.

Reyes did not provide any proof, either visual, auditory or written, for his claim that the hostages were in good health. He also rejected France’s exile offer to freed rebels.

“The FARC thank (French) President Jacques Chirac for this gesture, but for the moment we don’t foresee any of our fighters leaving Colombia.

“France is a free country while we, we need (the hostages) to free our country,” said the rebel leader.

The last videotape showing Betancourt and her campaign director Clara Rojas were alive was issued by the FARC in late August.

Since November 2002, Colombia has suggested that France take in some 300 jailed FARC rebels in exchange for the rebels’ release not only of Betancourt, the Americans and the Colombian politicians and military, but also of around 800 civilians they hold captive.

French government spokeswoman Catherine Colonna announced on February 26 that Paris was willing to take in some of the freed rebels.

Hardline Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, however, has insisted that an exchange msut involve all the FARC’s hostages for all FARC prisoners, provided the rebels pledge never again to take up arms against the government.

FARC so far has agreed to free its political and military captives, including Betancourt and the three Americans, but no civilians.

Colombia’s civil war has claimed more than 200,000 lives since 1964. The country sees a staggering average of 3,000 kidnappings every year, and has nearly three million people internally displaced by violence.

In his interview with AFP, Reyes also said that FARC founder and top commander Manuel Marulanda “was in good health”, dispelling recent rumors in the Colombian press that he was suffering terminal cancer.


                                                              Subject: France news