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FARC: Ingrid Betancourt in good health

3/11/2005 - Le Soir

Bogota: Pascale Mariani and Roméo Langlois:

When contacted by email, Raul Reyes, member of the FARC general secretariat, responded to a Figaro newspaper questionnaire. This related, above all, to the elusive humanitarian exchange of hostages held by rebels and guerrillas imprisoned by the authorities. His responses, compiled from the "Colombian mountains", are dated 22 February. In the questionnaire the guerrilla leader specifies his demands and acknowledges the French government's commitment, in urging Bogota to make the exchange of prisoners at all costs. Paris has not denied having had direct contacts with the rebels, in order to obtain the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a former ecology candidate for the Bogota presidential election.

Raul Reyes lists the sixty or so political and military hostages of the rebels, held in the jungle, in some cases for over seven years:

"Ingrid (Betancourt), Clara Rojas (her campaign manager), three American CIA agents, MPs and parliamentarians, Alan Jara (a former governor), army and police commanders, the former minister Araujo, among others that can be exchanged, and says that they are in good health. But by the same token, writes the guerrilla leader, like the guerrillas, deprived of their freedom, they are awaiting their release with great impatience". The American citizens in question, employed by a Californian company, subcontracted by the Pentagon, fell into rebel hands when their spy plane crashed in 2003.

Reyes is adamant that Farc the Spanish acronym of the liberation army, will insist "even more on getting the humanitarian agreement signed" desired both by rebels and families of hostages alike. The spokesperson blames the total lack of political will of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a believer in all out war against the subversives. For more than two years now the parties, incapable of settling on a meeting place, have been accusing one another of toying with the nerves of the hostages' families.

To commence the arduous negotiations, Reyes is demanding "the total withdrawal of public forces" from the two municipalities of the Cali region (Southwest), "so that the Farc spokesperson can meet there in complete safety with the government representatives in order to reach an agreement". He is asking for the release of "all of the men and women guerrillas held by the government, including Simon Trinidad, Ricardo Gonzalez and Sonia". President Alvaro Uribe has already rejected both these points as "non negotiable". The strong man of the Andes country rejects the creation of a demilitarised enclave, and the release of guerrillas guilty of serious crimes such as murder and abduction.

The rebels want to trade their hostages' freedom against that of all their imprisoned combatants (more than five hundred of them), including the guerrilla leader, Simon Trinidad. At the end of December, Trinidad's extradition to the United States (accused by American courts of drug trafficking and terrorism) caused consternation to the families of the hostages. Juan Carlos Lecompte, Ingrid Betancourt's husband expressed with deep regret "Uribe has extradited the humanitarian agreement". But by specifying, for the first time, that they are also claiming Ricardo Gonzalez, alias "Rodrigo Granda", and the fierce woman commandant. Sonia, Farc are hardening their terms. No one doubts that the government, just as hostile to the humanitarian agreement as the powerful American ally, will not accept them. Moreover, a one way ticket to an American prison awaits Sonia. In record time, Alvaro Uribe has just authorised her extradition. Treasurer of the Southern branch: according to the authorities, she is accused of exporting cocaine to the United States.

As for Ricardo Gonzalez, taken in Caracas by Venezuelan police suborned by Bogota, then handed back to the Colombian authorities, his dossier is just as sensitive. He was reputedly involved in the abduction, of the daughter of a former president of Paraguay. A radical left wing group perpetrated this in Asuncion. She was recently found assassinated. Gonzalez was living in Venezuela. He has supposedly acted as intermediary between Paris and Farc to negotiate the release of Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages. According to the Bogota, daily El Tiempo, the French ambassador to Caracas, met him in person, in April.

Did the Colombian government authorise these contacts? "The Colombian authorities knew of everything that was undertaken by our country", the French Dept of Foreign Affairs has maintained. In his message to the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Raul Reyes does not expand on the status of his contacts with Paris. But he concedes that, undeniably, President Jacques Chirac, his government and his people are mobilised for the successful exchange of prisoners". A leader of Farc secret diplomacy, Reyes has stayed in contact with French diplomats since the failure of the peace process with the previous government (1998-2002). Alongside nine other "friendly countries" France is now supporting the negotiations.

Other foreign intermediaries have long been labouring to bring together guerrillas and government. Switzerland is one of the most active. According to Reyes, "the exchange will be possible in so far as friendly governments such as France, Switzerland, Spain and other countries in the region contribute decisively to its achievement".