Betancourt liberation doesn't end negotiations

Ingrid Betancourt hugs her mother as her husband looks on after her release from captivity Keystone

Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt has been rescued in the jungle after six years of captivity at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

This content was published on July 3, 2008 - 08:41

Switzerland, which has been negotiating the liberation of Farc hostages along with France and Spain, hailed the result of the Colombian army operation, but warned there are other prisoners still waiting to be freed.

Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing over Betancourt and three American military contractors on Wednesday in a daring helicopter rescue so successful that not a single shot was apparently fired.

Betancourt, who was seized on the campaign trail six years ago, appeared thin but surprisingly healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace.

"God, this is a miracle," Betancourt said. "Such a perfect operation is unprecedented."

Eleven Colombian police and soldiers were also freed in a blow to the 44-year-old Farc, which considered the four hostages their most valuable bargaining chips.

Farc is already reeling from the deaths of key commanders and the loss of much of the territory it once held.

According to the Colombian defence minister, military intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and led the local commander in charge of the hostages to believe they were going to take them to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader, to discuss a possible hostage swap.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and US President George W Bush congratulated their Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, who said the time has come for peace negotiations with the rebel movement.

Sarkozy took time on Wednesday to thank Switzerland and Spain, which have been involved with France in negotiations with the Farc.

"Switzerland has shown patience and discretion during its long-term engagement in Colombia," Colombia's ambassador to Switzerland, Claudia Jimenez told Swiss radio.

"Its efforts must be continued," she added.

Swiss satisfaction

Also speaking on Swiss radio on Thursday, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was particularly happy that Betancourt had been freed as she had feared for her life only a few weeks ago.

"I wish to congratulate the Colombian government, President Uribe and all those who took part in the efforts to free the hostages," she added.

Calmy-Rey said though that other hostages were still being held and that efforts to free them must continue.

Contacts were apparently made last week by French and Swiss negotiators with Farc in a jungle location, although there has been no official confirmation.

Swiss negotiator Jean-Pierre Gontard is in the country, and told Swiss radio that talks with the rebels would not end.

Calmy-Rey confirmed that Switzerland would continue discussions with both sides in the Colombian conflict.

"The role of a neutral country is that of a facilitator which must maintain contacts with all parties, in this case the [Colombian] government and Farc," she said. "This does not mean we support the goals of the rebels."

The foreign minister said she would be travelling to Colombia next month for official talks.

swissinfo with agencies

Losing battle?

Many Colombians believe the Farc is nearing the end of its four-decade fight.

Battlefield losses and widespread desertions have cut rebel numbers in half to about 9,000 as the United States has poured billions of dollars in military aid into Colombia.

In March, historic leader Manuel Marulanda died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed.

The rest are hunkered down in remote jungle and mountain hideouts, unable to communicate effectively, their income from ransom kidnappings and the cocaine trade depleted by intense military operations.

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