Betancourt, symbol of hostage drama, freed after six years (To go with Colombian troops free Betancourt, 14 others from leftist rebels)

July 3rd, 2008 - 11:50 am ICT by IANS  


Bogota, July 3 (IANS) Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was freed by government troops Wednesday after spending more than six years in the captivity of leftist rebels, became a living symbol of the Latin American country’s tragic internal conflict. She was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas Feb 23, 2002 during the course of her election campaign along with running mate Clara Rojas, who was released by the rebels this January, EFE news agency reported.

Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen, was the FARC’s most valuable hostage because of the international importance her kidnapping took on and due to the intense and insistent campaign for her release conducted by the committees established in different countries to achieve that end.

Before her kidnapping, Betancourt, now 46, was a vivacious, combative and controversial politician, the opposite image from what was shown in videotape released in November 2007 by her captors that shocked the world and made a strong impact on those who saw it.

The video showed a woman with very long, dark hair, haggard, sad, with a lost gaze and chained somewhere in the Colombian jungle similar to the spot where she was rescued Wednesday along with three US military contractors and 11 Colombian police and military officers.

A month before the video was released, Betancourt had given signs of her state of health in a letter dated last October and addressed to her mother, former lawmaker Yolanda Pulecio.

In the letter, Betancourt lamented her situation and said she felt degraded, but she also said she was hopeful, one of the characteristics of her personality along with her ardour, intrepidity and persistence.

At times, those characteristics had been mixed with imprudence when she was kidnapped by the FARC rebels.

Despite the people who warned her of the danger she was putting herself in, Betancourt travelled to the southern jungle province of Caqueta, three days after then-president Andres Pastrana declared the government’s negotiations with the FARC to have broken down, and she and Rojas were captured by the rebels.

Besides her bravery, Betancourt has never minced her words, especially during the time she served in the national legislature.

During the 1994-1998 government of Ernesto Samper, Betancourt said loudly in Congress that the country was governed “by a criminal” and she declared that the party in which she began her political career was a “nest of thieves and corrupt people”.

In 1998, Betancourt founded her own party, Oxigeno Verde (Green Oxygen), with which she gained her congressional seat and under whose banner she ran for president.

Before entering politics, Betancourt - who comes from a well-to-do family - lived an easy life in Europe as the wife of French diplomat Fabrice Delloye, the father of her now-college-age children, Melanie and Lorenzo. She divorced Delloye in 1990.

A series of circumstances in Colombia, such as the assassinations of several presidential candidates and the rise of so-called “narco-terrorism”, caused her to reflect.

She knew, as her father - Gabriel Betancourt, who was education minister and a diplomat - had taught her that “she had a debt” to Colombia. “The country called,” she said on one occasion.

She returned to Colombia after more than 10 years in Europe, during which time she earned a degree from France’s prestigious Sciences Po University, where her professors included Dominique de Villepin, who later became France’s prime minister.

During her long captivity, her father died.

The Betancourt family received the first evidence that she was alive July 24, 2002: a video, on which Betancourt maintained her rebellious spirit, rejected the exchange proposed by the FARC and saluted her current husband, Colombian advertising executive Juan Carlos Lecompte.

Betancourt tried to escape from her captors several times, according to former senator Luis Eladio Perez, one of the six hostages unilaterally released by the FARC earlier this year.

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