Colombia: Uribe calls for military raids to rescue FARC hostages

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has ordered his military to intensify efforts to free hostages in the hands of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)—asserting that they are being held in “concentration camp” conditions “more cruel” than those of the Nazis. Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three US intelligence agents, and eight more hostages were reportedly being held in the same Amazon jungle camp from where National Police officer Jhon Frank Pinchao escaped April 28, after eight years in captivity. Frank said Betancourt is forced to sleep chained by her neck as punishment for having tried to escape five times.

On May 17, Frank met with family members of FARC hostages at a hospital where he is being treated for malnutrition and exposure-related skin problems. “They’re treating her like an animal,” said Betancourt’s husband Juan Carlos Lecompte, adding that he feared the hostages would face reprisals following Pinchao’s escape. “The guerrillas lie when they say they’re treating women and prisoners humanely.”

Pinchao was reportedly kept with Betancourt for almost three years. Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency on a leftist ticket in southern Colombia. In 2003, the FARC released a proof-of-life video of Betancourt and her running mate Clara Rojas, who Pinchao said gave birth three years ago in captivity to a child named Emanuel. The father is a guerrilla fighter, Pinchao said.

Pinchao said that after suffering a bout of hepatitis a year ago, Betancourt remains thin but is otherwise in good health. He said Betancourt passes her days discussing politics with other hostages, reading and keeping a journal. She also managed to safeguard from her captors a radio with which she receives daily messages from loved ones transmitted over a radio program dedicated to the hostages.

Uribe, at a military ceremony, said Pinchao’s testimony “demonstrates that the FARC’s concentration camps are more cruel than the concentration camps of the Nazis.” He exhorted his commander to draft plans to free the hostages. “Generals, we’re going to rescue Ingrid Betancourt,” said a visibly angry Uribe, adding “and let there be no doubt in the US Congress that we’re also going to militarily rescue the FARC’s three American hostages.”

Uribe was referring to three Northrop-Grumman Corp. contractors—Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell—who were on a surveillance mission in Colombia’s southern jungle when their plane crashed on Feb. 13, 2003. Gonsalves is currently suffering from hepatitis, Pinchao told journalists.

But hostage family members feared that any rescue operation would end in the deaths of their loved ones. Speaking May 18 on French television after a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Betancourt’s daughter, Melanie Betancourt, denounced Uribe’s call for a military rescue.

“We are verifying what Mr. Uribe has said exactly,” a spokesman for French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on France Info radio. “We are against any military action that could endanger the lives of the hostages.”

Uribe responded: “I respect the new president of France, President [Nicolas] Sarkozy, who we knew when he was a minister. We are respectful and receptive to proposals he may have and we must reiterate our will to defeat terrorists here.”

Paris city hall has erected a large poster of Betancourt outside the building. Sarkozy met Betancourt’s two children in Paris on May 18, and pledged he would help seek her release.

Also May 18, authorities said Swedish citizen Roland Erick Larson and his Colombian wife, Diana Patricia Pena had been kidnapped two days earlier at their farm in northern Colombia. Swedish Ambassador Lena Nordstrom said she had no information about who was responsible. (AP, Reuters, May 19)

See our last post on Colombia and the hostage crisis.