Andean region ties key to hostage release: France

QUITO Tue Apr 29, 2008 10:42pm EDT

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (L) attends a photo opportunity with Ecuadorean Security Minister Gustavo Larrea (R) and an unidentified woman in Quito April 29, 2008. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (L) attends a photo opportunity with Ecuadorean Security Minister Gustavo Larrea (R) and an unidentified woman in Quito April 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Guillermo Granja

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QUITO (Reuters) - Easing tensions between Andean neighbors Ecuador and Colombia is vital if efforts to release dozens of hostages held by Colombian guerrillas for years in hidden jungle camps are to succeed, France said on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters in Quito that a diplomatic spat between the Andean neighbors made hostage talks more difficult.

"Tensions need to be eased ... to find a humanitarian solution to the release of the hostages," Kouchner said after meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

Hopes for a hostage release dimmed after the Colombian military bombed a rebel camp inside Ecuador in March, killing a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and fraying ties between the neighbors.

Kouchner said his country was seeking mediators to broker a deal with the rebels to free the hostages, who include French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Betancourt's plight in captivity has attracted world attention to Colombia.

Kouchner, who is on a three-nation tour, met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Monday and plans to visit Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who helped release six captives earlier this year.

Correa said Bogota's March 1 attack derailed direct talks with FARC rebels to release Betancourt and 11 other hostages.

The FARC earlier this month rejected a French medical mission to treat Betancourt, who fellow hostages say suffers from hepatitis and is kept chained up after attempting to escape.

Colombia's decades-long conflict has eased under Uribe, a U.S. ally who has sent troops to retake areas under the control of armed groups. The FARC is still fighting in remote areas aided by funds from cocaine trafficking.

Tensions between both countries remain high as Correa has so far shrugged off pleas from the Organization of American States -- the Western Hemisphere's top diplomatic body -- to move on.

Colombia accuses Ecuador of not doing enough to protect its 400-mile (600-km) border that is often crossed by guerrillas to plot attacks on Colombian troops.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; editing by Eric Beech)

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