Saturday, July 05, 2008

Talking tough, but paying for hostages. Not the least bit surprising

Ingrid Betancourt’s homecoming soured by claims of secret payoff

Ingrid Betancourt praised President Sarkozy for saving her from likely death

Ingrid Betancourt praised President Sarkozy for saving her from likely death

Ingrid Betancourt landed to an emotional welcome in France yesterday after six years of captivity in Colombia, praising President Sarkozy for saving her from likely death in the hands of the rebel army that held her.

As the Colombian politician arrived in her “second home country”, questions arose over the bloodless military operation that secured her freedom from the jungle, along with 14 other hostages.

According to reports that were dismissed by Colombia as lies, the apparently brilliant operation was partly stage-managed and included a US-financed ransom. A senior French expert said on state television that some of Ms Betancourt’s captors had “probably been bought”. But official sources in Washington were deeply sceptical about the ransom claim and French diplomats dismissed it as mischievous.

Ms Betancourt, 46, walked briskly down the steps of the French presidential Airbus at Villacoublay airbase to embrace a visibly moved Mr Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, his wife. “Dear Ingrid, we have been waiting for this for so long . . . France loves you,” said Mr Sarkozy, who had made her release a priority. Successive French governments campaigned for Ms Betancourt, whose Paris upbringing and former marriage to a French diplomat took her into the French Establishment.

France’s tearful new national heroine said: “I am so happy to breathe the air of France.” During the flight from Bogotá, the former Colombian presidential candidate said: “I owe my life to France. If France hadn’t fought for me, I wouldn’t be here making this extraordinary journey.”

This was music to Mr Sarkozy after his opponents contrasted the success of the military rescue, ordered by President Uribe, with his own attempts to negotiate with the Marxist Farc rebels.

According to Ms Betancourt and President Uribe, the Farc unit holding the hostages was fooled into giving them up to an eight-man commando unit disguised as foreign humanitarian workers, Farc officials and reporters. The group used civilian helicopters.

Ms Betancourt, who arrived with her daughter Melanie, 22, and son Lorenzo, 19, said to Mr Sarkozy: “The extraordinary, perfect, flawless operation of the Colombian Army that has allowed me to be here today is . . . a result of your struggle.” The President had succeeded in convincing Mr Uribe to soften his hardline strategy and refrain from direct assaults that would probably have led to the hostages’ deaths, she said. “This was an operation of intelligence. The \ were not even armed,” she said.

She also cast doubt on the claims that a ransom had been paid: “Based on what I was able to see in this rescue operation, because of the intensity, I don’t think they could have fooled me. I don't think that anyone was acting. The situation was too intense.”

Doubts emerged from reports in Europe and Latin America that the Colombian forces may not have fooled the rebels but enjoyed their complicity. Le Monde suggested that Gerardo Aguilar, the rebel in charge of the hostages, had given them up in return for a promise of amnesty. It linked this with President Sarkozy’s offers of asylum to Farc personnel. He renewed the offer on the night of Ms Betancourt's release. “Was Aguilar turned by the army, or even bought? Questions and doubts remain,” it said.

On television, as Ms Betancourt’s aircraft was landing, Dominique Moisi, former director of the French Institute of International Relations, said that money had probably been used in an operation to infiltrate the Farc leadership. “They were bought to turn them, like Mafia chiefs,” he said.

Swiss public radio cited an informed Colombian source as saying that the operation had been staged to cover up the fact that the US and Colombians had paid $20 million for their freedom. The hostages released on Wednesday “were in reality ransomed for a high price, and the whole operation afterwards was a set-up”, it said. Three of the hostages were agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, said to have been detached from the FBI.

French state media also raised questions about Ms Betancourt’s healthy appearance on her release, compared with the gaunt and haggard look of her last video from captivity. France Inter radio suggested that the hostages may have been given food and medicine before a planned release.

A Colombian Foreign Ministry spokesman called the allegations “completely false . . . They are lies”. The French Foreign Ministry said that it had not paid any ransom. Israeli media also reported that its intelligence service, Mossad, had helped to plan and execute the operation, naming Israel Ziv, a retired army officer.

Original article posted here.

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