Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a public appeal to the head of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas on Saturday to release high-profile French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt.
“From here I send a request to Manuel Marulanda. Manuel Marulanda, send us Ingrid. Send us Ingrid. On this International Women’s Day, I expressly ask you to do it,” Chavez said in a speech during a Women’s Day ceremony in Caracas.
“When you can, when the conditions make it possible, liberate Ingrid Betancourt. She’s the only woman who is still in the hands of the FARC. It doesn’t make sense to keep her in the jungles of Colombia,” Chavez said to a cheering audience of women, including Betancourt’s mother.
France has been pushing Colombia to try to negotiate the release of Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, who was abducted six years ago and is very sick with liver ailments and depression.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, may not give up Betancourt, considered one of its strongest bargaining chips, unless it gets something major in return from the Colombian government.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has taken a hard line with the FARC, fighting it with the military instead of accepting its terms for an exchange of hostages for rebels held in government prisons.
His stance has made him popular in Colombia, where people are weary of decades of killing and kidnappings by the Marxist FARC — Latin America’s oldest rebel group — and by right-wing paramilitary groups.
The leftist Chavez is at odds with Uribe, his conservative counterpart in neighboring Colombia. Despite Uribe’s misgivings, Chavez has persuaded the guerrillas to release prisoners it has held for years.
His mediation gained the release this year of six hostages, some of them women, leaving Betancourt the only high-profile female hostage still held by the FARC.
A top FARC leader, Raul Reyes, killed in a Colombian raid into Ecuador on March 1, was the contact for French and other negotiators trying to get Betancourt and other hostages freed.
The raid sparked a weeklong diplomatic crisis that ended on Friday at a summit of Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic.
Chavez said Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa had been working with Reyes to have Betancourt released on the Ecuador side of its border with Colombia, which was closer for the guerrillas than the Venezuelan border.