Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: On the Verge of Death?

Ana Carrigan and Constanza Vieira

LONDON, Apr 3 2008 (IPS) - It is still uncertain whether a European humanitarian mission sent to Colombia by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to provide emergency medical aid to French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt will be received by the FARC guerrillas.

The mission, which includes two doctors and two negotiators, landed in Bogotá in the early hours of Thursday morning. But while Paris announced Wednesday that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would accompany the delegation, that is not the case.

ICRC spokesman Carlos Ríos in Bogotá confirmed to IPS Thursday that his organisation would not be taking part. "In order to participate in an initiative of this kind, we would have to respond to a request from all of the parties involved, that is, governments and armed groups. This is essential whenever we undertake such operations," he said.

But "in this case, there has been no contact" with the guerrillas, he added.

There are only two official bodies with whom the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) maintain regular contact on the hostage question: the ICRC and the French-Swiss diplomatic team representing a group of "friendly countries" that also include Spain and that are working for the release of 39 hostages held by the insurgents, in exchange for imprisoned guerrillas.

It is these facilitators – former French consul in Bogotá Noel Saez, and a representative of the Swiss government, Jean-Pierre Gontard – who flew in Thursday with the humanitarian mission from France.

This is the team that has worked closest with the FARC over the last six years, in the midst of rightwing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s all-out offensive in the armed conflict.

The negotiators have built up a solid foundation of trust in a score of meetings with the rural guerrilla group that was founded in 1964 and controls an estimated 35 percent of the national territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas in the south of the country.

But in July, after eleven hostages, all of them regional lawmakers, were killed in controversial circumstances, Uribe abruptly dismissed the negotiators, although he officially re-instated them prior to the Mar. 1 bombing raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador, which targeted the rebel group’s chief negotiator, Raúl Reyes.

Three days before the air strike that killed Reyes and 24 others, including four Mexican students and an Ecuadorean citizen, the Swiss and French delegates met secretly in Panama with Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, and agreed that the European negotiators would meet Reyes in ten days&#39 time.

Had the gathering between Reyes and the European facilitators gone ahead, as planned in Panama, it would have been their 23rd meeting.

The FARC revealed later that Reyes and French delegates were planning to meet, to arrange a meeting between the insurgent spokesperson and the French president, to seek "a definitive solution" in the case of Betancourt, whose release is one of Sarkozy’s top foreign policy concerns.

Little has been said about the devastating consequences of the bombing of Reyes’ camp for the hostages held by the FARC.

The mediators do not tend to undertake an operation of the magnitude of the current humanitarian mission without prior contact with the FARC. IPS was informed that the negotiators received confirmation last week from the guerrillas that Betancourt’s health is extremely fragile.

When the emergency medical mission to Colombia set out from Paris Wednesday, Sarkozy warned that the French-Colombian hostage, who has been held by the guerrillas in a jungle camp for six years, was near death.

There are insistent rumours that the FARC’s highest-profile hostage, who is reportedly suffering from hepatitis B, leishmaniasis, malaria and severe depression, is dying.

Uribe recently urged the FARC to allow an international emergency medical mission to fly in and treat the hostages, and he has agreed to suspend military operations in any area to which the French delegation wishes to travel.

That decision initially upset Colombia’s armed forces chief, General Freddy Padilla, who told the press that the FARC were taking advantage of friendly countries to gain greater international prominence.

"We are still working. We are making progress towards locating the hostages… to permit the humanitarian institutions to carry out their rescue once we have succeeded in fully identifying their precise location," said Padilla, raising the question of whether the "humanitarian institutions" are expected to "rescue" the hostages, in the midst of crossfire between the army and the FARC.

But on Thursday, Padilla stated that his forces would cease all operations in the area where the humanitarian mission expects to travel.

Uribe, meanwhile, has offered rewards from a 100 million dollar fund to any guerrillas who desert with their captives.

There are fears that the humanitarian operation will fail to make contact with the FARC. The Colombian army surrounds the areas under guerrilla control, and the movement and release of hostages is among the most dangerous activities for the insurgents, since it involves the emissaries leaving the safety of rebel territory.

Since Israeli, British and U.S. advisers have become involved in Colombia’s armed conflict with their hi-tech surveillance systems and undercover informants, nothing is simple in the jungle.

But the FARC has everything to lose if Betancourt dies.

In a moving letter to her mother last October, the former presidential candidate said "I am tired, Mama, tired of suffering…I am tired of telling myself lies that soon this is all going to end, only to find that every day is the same hell as the day before…and I feel that my childrens&#39 lives are on &#39standby,&#39 waiting for me to get out, and their daily suffering makes death seem a favourable option."

A video accompanying the letter showed her shockingly gaunt.

Although Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba lost their official status as mediators in the hostage talks in November, they stayed in touch with the FARC negotiators and secured the release of six hostages in January and February.

But the "doors of hope" for a political solution to the hostage crisis that were opened up – in the words of Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro – have now slammed shut.

Early in January, a group of young Uribe supporters launched a call on the Facebook social networking site for a global protest march against the FARC. On Feb. 4, with the government’s backing, two million people in Colombia and thousands more around the world marched behind banners that read "A Million Voices against the FARC".

Others carried "Adelante Presidente!" signs in support of Uribe, while demonstrators began to collect signatures for another constitutional amendment to permit the president to run for a third term in 2010.

The families of the 39 remaining hostages in the hands of the FARC did not participate.

For Betancourt and the other hostages, the killing of the FARC&#39s sole experienced international negotiator must have been a devastating blow.

If she has decided that death offers her only escape, then for their own sake, both the FARC and Uribe should take whatever urgent actions are required to save her life.

While the FARC will need people they can trust to help them to get Betancourt out, if Uribe does not want to be perceived as jointly responsible for her death, then he must listen carefully and he must act, promptly and in good faith, on the advice of the mediators, according to sources close to the European negotiators.

One signal in that direction came Wednesday when Peace Commissioner Restrepo mentioned the revival of a Swiss-French proposal, dating back to 2005, for the creation of a demilitarised zone where the FARC and government representatives could meet to negotiate an exchange of hostages for imprisoned rebels.

The demand for a 180 sq km demilitarised zone in southwestern Colombia is one of the FARC’s key conditions for hostage talks.

A massive demonstration for Betancourt’s release will be held this weekend in France. A rally will take place in Bogotá as well, on Friday, demanding her freedom and a humanitarian hostage-prisoner swap.

As long as Betancourt remains alive, so too will hope.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags