BOGOTA — Tens of thousands of Colombians plan to march in major cities across the country Friday to demand the release of rebel-held hostages, as a French-led humanitarian mission seeks access to their highest-level captive — said to be on the verge of death.
Demonstrators were asked to wear white T-shirts as a symbol of peace as they march through the streets of Bogota, Medellin, Cali and other cities calling for the release of politician Ingrid Betancourt and more than 700 hostages held by rebels of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The marches were prompted by the reportedly precarious health of Betancourt, a dual-citizen French-Colombian who was a candidate for Colombia's presidency when she was kidnapped in 2002.
The French government sent a plane to Colombia early Thursday as part of a medical mission to aid Betancourt, said to be suffering from hepatitis B and leishmeniasis, a tropical skin disease that can also affect the liver if untreated, and to seek her release.
But later in the day, senior rebel leader Rodrigo Granda ruled out the unilateral release of Betancourt, saying the FARC expects an exchange of jailed rebels for 40 high-profile hostages, including Betancourt.
"Only as a result of a prisoner exchange agreement will those who are held in our camps go free,'' Granda said in a statement posted on a Web site that often carries communiques from the FARC.
Granda did not directly object to the humanitarian mission to treat Betancourt, 46, who has become an international icon for the hostages being held by the FARC as political pawns.
Rumors of Betancourt's failing health began circulating in February in the tiny village of El Capricho deep in the southeastern province of Guaviare, where cattle ranches and coca plantations have been carved from the thick jungle.
Villagers told the Rev. Manuel Mancera, a Catholic parish priest in the town of nearby La Libertad, that in late February — around the same time the FARC were releasing four other hostages — Betancourt was taken to El Capricho's bare-bones health clinic for treatment.
Earlier this week, a handwritten sign on the gate read, "No doctor.''
The resident physician left town when the rumors that he had treated Betancourt began to spread. The nurse went on leave after being grilled by army, police and prosecutors. They both have denied ever treating Betancourt.
Alvaro, an ambulance driver for the health center, also was emphatic in an interview with The Miami Herald. "Ingrid Betancourt was never here,'' said Alvaro, who declined to give his last name. Alvaro, who also was questioned by prosecutors, said he was offered asylum in another country and cash.
"If I had known something, I would have taken the money and started a new life,'' he told The Herald.
But, Alvaro added, "Where there's smoke there's fire. The truth will all come out once she's released. If she's released.''
The Rev. Mancera said such is the strength of the guerrilla presence in the region, that despite the government offers of cash, most residents of the villages are afraid to speak out.
"They know that if they say something, they are digging their own grave,'' he said.
Sitting outside his tiny church in La Libertad, sipping coffee between Sunday Masses, Mancera, who has worked in the area for more than 20 years, said he's overcome his fear. The priest said he spoke to one person who claims to have been with Betancourt as recently as March 23.
"He said she was very weak and in the last stages of depression. When she opens her mouth to speak, she breaks down in tears,'' Mancera said he was told.
The government gave credibility to the information emerging from Guaviare, and last week Uribe issued a decree offering the immediate release of all rebel prisoners if the FARC hands over Betancourt. Uribe also said there was a $100 million fund available for rebels who turned themselves in along with any hostage.
"What we need is that by whatever means, the hostages be released, starting with Ingrid Betancourt because of her state of health,'' Uribe said last week.
But the FARC are unlikely to easily give up their most prized hostage.
"If the FARC let her die, it will be devastating for them, politically,'' said Leon Valencia, a political analyst and former rebel of the smaller National Liberation Army. "But it'll also be hard for them to let her go without anything in exchange.''
Valencia suspects the French had come to Colombia with more to offer than medicine. "They are going to come with some sort of attractive offer for the FARC — which could include granting them political status — so they [the French] can take her,'' he said.
In a televised appeal this week to the most senior FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda, French President Nicolas Sarkozy challenged the FARC to release Betancourt at once.
"You, who lead the FARC, you have a rendezvous with history: Free Ingrid Betancourt,'' Sarkozy said.
Most of those kidnapped by the FARC are held for ransom, but Betancourt is among an elite group of politicians and military officers that the rebels want to exchange for jailed rebels.
The FARC unilaterally released six politicians in two separate operations earlier this year, handing them over to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In the statement Thursday, rebel leader Granda said the FARC could not be asked for "more peace gestures'' without a concrete deal for a prisoner swap. The guerrillas had previously said they would release no more hostages until the Colombian government gave in to their demand for a demilitarized zone near the southwestern city of Cali to negotiate the deal.
The other swappable hostages include three American defense contractors captured when their plane went down over rebel territory in 2003. Arizona Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson recently undertook a diplomatic mission to seek their release.
In addition, the FARC are holding three other Colombian politicians and dozens of police and army officers, mostly taken during guerrilla attacks on military bases and rural towns in the late 1990s. But the rebels say that any possibility of a deal with Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in 1983, died along with No. 2 FARC leader Raul Reyes in a cross-border Colombian Army attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador on March 1.
Schisms within the FARC have been growing: Last month a member of the ruling secretariat was murdered by his security guard who then turned himself in to authorities. But the leadership is likely to hold out for more than what the government's offering in exchange for the most high-profile of their hostages, said Valencia, the political analyst and former rebel.
"Once they give her [Betancourt] up, their leverage is gone, and you can pretty much forget about the other hostages, because international pressure will die down,'' he said.
From the moment of her kidnapping in February 2002, Betancourt became an immediate cause celebre in France, with mass campaigns calling for her release.
But while campaigns demanding her freedom have highlighted the plight of all of Colombia's hostages, they have also made Betancourt more valuable to her captors.
Betancourt is not just a French citizen ‐ she's a well-connected one.
Her former husband, and the father of her two children — Fabrice Delloye — was a member of the French foreign service. Betancourt studied political science in France under Dominique de Villepin, who took the post of foreign minister just months after Betancourt was kidnapped, then went on to be interior minister then prime minister.
Betancourt's sister, Astrid, married the former French ambassador to Bogota, Daniel Parfait. But the "Free Ingrid'' campaign is not limited to the halls of the Quai d'Orsay. Daughter Melanie, who was 16 when her mother was kidnapped and is now 21, can often be seen leading a small march through the streets of Paris carrying a life-size photo cut-out of her mother.
Across Europe, Betancourt has been named an honorary citizen in more than 1,000 cities and towns. But while Europe has united to demand her release, Betancourt's kidnapping has driven a wedge between different members of her family. Her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, has been a staunch critic of Uribe, blaming him for not doing enough to free her daughter. She has relied more on the offices of the French and Venezuelan presidents to negotiate her daughter's release.
After meeting Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner late last year, she declared that she had more faith in the FARC than in the Colombian government.
Betancourt's current husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, does not blame the Colombian government, rather FARC rebels for his wife's prolonged captivity.
"The government are the good guys, they [the FARC] are the inhumane ones,'' Lecompte has told reporters.
One thing they all agree on, however, is that under no circumstances should the government attempt a military rescue, which they fear could lead the rebels to execute Betancourt, as they have done with other hostages.