Farc's prized hostage 'losing her will to live'

The rumours are strong and persistent: Ingrid Betancourt, the most prized hostage being held by Colombian rebels, is in the jungles of remote Guaviare province, sick and losing her will to live.

As recently as a week ago, a peasant claimed to have seen her near the town of El Retorno, telling a priest she looked forlorn and had broken down in tears when she tried to speak. She is said to be suffering from leishmaniasis and hepatitis B, for which treatment is hard to come by in this area.

The buzz in the villages that dot this area of cattle ranches interspersed with jungle is that Betancourt is so sick that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) might be willing to hand her over to avoid having her die on their hands.

Betancourt’s ex-husband, Fabrice Delloye, said in France he feared she was “near death or already dead”. A French plane was last weekend reportedly on stand-by in French Guiana awaiting her possible release.

The rumours prompted President Alvaro Uribe to sign a decree offering the immediate release of rebel prisoners if the Farc hand over Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen who has been held hostage for six years. Uribe said France was willing to give asylum to anyone who offered information about her whereabouts. He added that a $100-million fund was available for rebels who turned themselves in along with hostages.

The rebels are holding about 40 high-profile hostages as bargaining chips for the release of hundreds of their jailed fighters. Other hostages include three American defence contractors taken when their surveillance plane went down in 2003 and two Colombian politicians. Hundreds of other hostages are also being held.

Betancourt (46), who was abducted in 2002 as she was campaigning for president, has become the international symbol for the plight of Colombia’s kidnap victims. Among the “swappable” hostages she is the only woman left after the Farc unilaterally released six politicians in two operations earlier this year, handing them over to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The guerrillas had said they would release no more hostages until the Colombian government gave in to their demand for a demilitarised zone in the south-west.

Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Wolmar Perez, said he had credible evidence that Betancourt was “very, very ill” and had deteriorated significantly since the last video released in November showed her gaunt and frail.

Manuel Mancera, a parish priest in the town of Libertad, said a parishioner told him last week he had been with someone he believed was Betancourt. “He said she was very weak and in the last stages of depression. When she opens her mouth to speak, she breaks down in tears,” Mancera said.

Such is the strength of the guerrilla presence in the region that, despite the government offers of cash, most residents are afraid to speak out. Everyone says they have heard rumours but no one is willing to confirm them.

The rumours about Betancourt’s present state started in the tiny village of El Capricho about a month ago, when news spread that Farc rebels had brought her to the small ill-equipped hospital here to be treated for leishmaniasis and hepatitis B. The resident doctor of El Capricho has since requested a transfer. The nurse is on extended leave after being grilled by army, police and prosecutors. They both denied treating Betancourt.

The ambulance driver for the government health service here, Alvaro, is emphatic: “Ingrid Betancourt was never here.” He, too, was questioned by prosecutors and says he was offered asylum in another country and cash. “If I had known something, I would have taken the money and started a new life in the US or Europe,” he said. But about the persistent rumours, he admitted: “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”—Â



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