Colombia seizes video of rebel-held hostages

Colombian officials on Friday showed recently seized videotapes of rebel-held hostages, among them three United States defence contractors and a former presidential candidate—the first images in years providing evidence the captives may be alive.

High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo said the tapes were captured after the arrest on Thursday evening of three suspected urban members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The government said it had also recovered a series of letters apparently written by the hostages, including what appeared to be the will of US contractor Thomas Howes.

The videotapes, which were played at a news conference without sound, showed an extremely gaunt Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician, apparently chained and in front of a jungle backdrop. In the silent images, Betancourt, who was kidnapped as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency in 2002, has long hair and stares blankly at the ground. No images of her have been seen since the year of her abduction.

“The proof of life of Ingrid Betancourt obtained by the Colombian authorities is big news: it is the first proof of life for more than four years,” said a spokesperson for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, David Martinon.

The videos provided rare consolation for relatives, who had seen their hopes for a negotiated release of the hostages dashed last week following a spat between Colombia President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who was attempting to mediate between the government and rebels.

Several relatives called on Uribe to reconcile with the Venezuelan president and restart the talks.

“I had the feeling that Ingrid was alive, but I also knew the conditions” of her captivity, Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, told reporters.
“This has been too painful for all of us.” Addressing Uribe, she said: “Please start the dialogue ... I’m begging you.”

Tapes

The government said that the tapes showing Betancourt carried the date of October 24 2007. The tape of the Americans carried the date of January 1, 2007, but a kidnapped Colombian soldier, who appeared on the same tape, said the recording was being made on October 23.

The Americans—Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves—were abducted by the Farc after their plane went down in southern Colombia in 2003. Each American briefly stood alone on the screen, also against a jungle backdrop, looking haggard. The rebels had not released any images of them since 2003.

Among the other evidence recovered by the army was a series of letters apparently written by the hostages, said Restrepo. One undated letter was from Howes to his wife, and another, dated November 26 2006, was his will, said the government. Another note was from Gonsalves to the military commander of the Farc, known as “Mono Jojoy”, dated October 23 2007, and Betancourt wrote a letter to her mother, dated October 24 2007.

Restrepo said the five tapes also showed images of 12 other Colombians, mainly members of the security forces.

The Farc, which uses kidnapping as a tool to raise money and pressure the government, is offering to release these and other hostages in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of rebels from Colombian and US prisons. Some hostages have endured a decade in Farc captivity.

Chávez

The Farc was criticised for failing to provide so-called “proof of life” during the mediation by Chávez, who demanded such evidence from the guerrillas.

Chávez, who is well-respected by the Farc, had been involved in trying to mediate a deal between the government and the rebels until last week when Uribe ended his role, saying the Venezuelan leader disobeyed a direct order by contacting the head of Colombia’s army.

In justifying its decision to end Chávez’s role as mediator, the Colombian government said the Farc had failed to respond to the Venezuelan president’s entreaties to give evidence the hostages were still alive.

Chávez’s dismissal from the process has led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries, with the Venezuelan leader announcing on Wednesday he would have “no type of relationship” with the Colombian government as long as Uribe was president.

Since taking office in 2002, Uribe’s administration has had no face-to-face meetings with the rebels.—Sapa-AP

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