Chavez Says He Can't Help on Betancourt

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- France asked the Venezuelan president for help Friday with a hurried mission to free an ailing hostage held by Colombian rebels, but Hugo Chavez said he can't do anything unless Colombia and the U.S. back off their hunt for a guerrilla leader.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was willing to travel with Chavez to the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier to try to secure the release of Ingrid Betancourt, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Associated Press Television News.

Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who also has French citizenship, is in her seventh year of captivity in the jungles of southeastern Colombia. She is among hundreds of people, including three U.S. contractors, held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Chavez, the leftist president who negotiated earlier hostage releases by FARC, expressed a desire to help, but he said the United States and Colombia should first stop trying to catch Ivan Marquez, who is a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat.

"We have information which indicates that agents from governments of Colombia and the United States are hunting Ivan Marquez," Chavez said in Caracas late Thursday. He suggested the United States is using "very advanced technology ... they have satellites and so on."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he did not know who Marquez is. Asked about Chavez's suggestion that U.S. actions could lead to progress toward the hostages' release, Casey said: "I'm not sure what he's referring to."

The State Department announced two years ago that it would pay a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of any of the FARC secretariat's seven members.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota, which has overseen the delivery of billions of dollars in counterinsurgency aid to the Colombian military, declined to comment.

On Friday, Chavez said at a news conference in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, that he would continue to work for the freedom of FARC hostages but would no longer speak about his efforts.

A French government jet remained at an air base in Bogota after flying in Thursday with a delegation that hopes to free Betancourt - or at least provide her with medical attention.

Colombian news media reported earlier this week that the 46-year-old hostage was at death's door, quoting unidentified peasants who said they had seen her. A hostage who spent months with Betancourt and was released in February said she had hepatitis B and a disfiguring skin disease spread by sand flies.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe offered "all possible efforts" to help, but the mission had made no apparent headway. Spain and Switzerland also supported the humanitarian mission, which the rebels had not publicly discussed.

Astrid Betancourt, the hostage's sister, said the French mission flew to Colombia "without having any pre-agreement with the guerrillas," motivated by rumors that she the hostage was gravely ill.

"That's why they sent this plane, to see if this initiative would provoke a reaction in the FARC, but knowing it was very unlikely," the sister told Colombian radio Friday from Paris. "That way they wouldn't later have to say, 'We didn't go and something happened.'"

Rodrigo Granda, known as the FARC's "foreign minister," said in an Internet message posted Thursday that the rebels would release no hostages unilaterally. He said the group's prisoners would be let go only as part of a swap for jailed rebels.

A French diplomat said in Paris on Friday that Granda's statement was made March 19, before the humanitarian operation was planned. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Relatives of other hostages were devastated by Granda's message.

"It filled us with sadness," said Claudia Rugeles, wife of a former governor kidnapped by the FARC in 2001. "One always is hoping for these initiatives to obtain freedom, and we had been hoping for a positive response from France's."

A new wrinkle was added to efforts to free Betancourt on Friday when Interpol issued a "red notice" for Granda's capture in connection with a kidnapping and killing in Paraguay. As a wanted man, Granda would be unable to travel freely to participate in any prisoner-hostage swap.

According to an Interpol official, who gave the information on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly, Granda is wanted on charges of membership in a criminal group, kidnapping and injuries resulting in a death. The notice was issued at Paraguay's request.

A U.S. congressman long involved in Colombian affairs said any serious effort to secure the release of hostages must be done by "quiet diplomacy."

"Chavez making public pronouncements is maybe nice theater but is not moving the ball forward," Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said in a telephone interview.

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