Rebel's Death Hinders Betancourt Rescue

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- A French-led mission to free hostage Ingrid Betancourt in Colombia may fail because officials cannot find any rebels to talk to about her release. The insurgents are in hiding, their main contact with the outside world is dead and Interpol has an arrest notice out for a top guerrilla leader.

Only a few years ago, Colombian rebel leaders were easily found in the towns and fields of southern Colombia as they talked peace with the government.

After peace talks with rebels collapsed in 2002, commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, disappeared into the jungle, leaving a bearded, diminutive rebel known as Raul Reyes as their public face.

Reyes was killed on March 1 in a Colombian military raid on a FARC camp across the border in Ecuador that triggered a regional crisis, with Ecuador, backed by Venezuela and Nicaragua, complaining the attack violated its sovereignty.

The raid is now having additional repercussions. By eliminating the channel of contact with the reclusive rebel leadership, it has hamstrung the international mission to save Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who also holds French citizenship and is gravely ill.

The mission mounted by France, Spain and Switzerland is on hold, with a jet sent to help her still sitting in the Colombian capital four days after it arrived.

Reyes had been engaged in hostage talks with Venezuela, France and other countries.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who received rebel-held hostages earlier this year because of his previous efforts at mediation, says he now has no way of reaching the rebel group.

Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a Chavez collaborator who this year twice escorted a total of six hostages freed by the FARC into freedom, says she wants to help the French-led mission but lacks contacts.

"All I can say is, as soon as we have a chance to resume contact with someone ... we can work on this subject," she said Friday.

A new complication arose Friday when Interpol issued a "red notice" for the capture of Rodrigo Granda, known as the FARC's "foreign minister," 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.

Juan Carlos Lecompte, Betancourt's husband, said the humanitarian mission has had no contact with the FARC.

One possible solution might be the International Committee of the Red Cross, which maintains contacts with the rebels. But Barbara Hintermann, the chief Red Cross delegate in Colombia, told The Associated Press on Saturday her group would consider getting involved only if the FARC and the Colombian government request its assistance.

So far, the rebels have not reached out, Hintermann said.

"We are not involved in that mission from France," Hintermann said. She declined to say if her group has asked the FARC if it needs its assistance as an intermediary, but indicated that initiating contact would be beyond the scope of the Red Cross' mission.

"We have a principle of independence," Hintermann said.

Meanwhile, the French government jet that brought two diplomats and two doctors to Colombia on Wednesday to whisk Betancourt to freedom or at least bring her medical aid sat idle in Bogota, the capital.

In Madrid, a Spanish official said privately that Spain's contacts with the FARC collapsed some months ago. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said Switzerland had been in touch with the FARC "in the past" but would not say when the last contact was.

Diplomats from France, Spain and Switzerland had dealt with the FARC before as observers to peace talks held by then-President Andres Pastrana in a huge safe haven. During the four-year life span of the peace process, diplomats trekked to the steamy hamlet of Los Pozos for talks.

The rebels were so accessible that rebel chieftain Joaquin Gomez once telephoned an Associated Press bureau chief to complain about coverage of FARC involvement in the drug trade.

Access to the rebels changed dramatically in February 2002 after the FARC hijacked an airliner. Pastrana promptly ended the peace talks and ordered his troops into the safe haven.

Three days later, Betancourt, campaigning for the presidency, drove to the main town in the former safe haven to meet with its mayor, a member of her political party. Rebels grabbed her at a roadblock and hustled her off into the wilderness.

Betancourt had ignored army warnings not to enter former rebel territory.

Asked Saturday if the mission to help Betancourt would continue, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said it would "remain in place."

"We are on the scene and we are determined to continue," he told France-2 television. "Now we are waiting for news from the FARC of course ... We are there, on alert. This isn't finished."


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