June 19, 2008 / 1:29 PM / 10 years ago

France renews contact with FARC leaders on hostage

PARIS, June 19 (Reuters) - France has renewed contact with the leaders of Colombian guerrillas holding Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt to try and secure her release after their main guerrilla contact was killed in March, presidency sources said on Thursday.

The left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has turned to kidnapping, extortion and the cocaine trade to finance operations against the military and outlawed paramilitary groups.

"We have managed to renew dialogue with certain members of the FARC secretariat. We are pursuing contacts but discreetly," said one senior source at the French presidency, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The FARC has recently suffered a series of losses among its senior members, including the guerrilla group’s founder Manuel Marulanda and his deputy Raul Reyes, who was named by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner as France’s main FARC contact.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said on Friday a rebel from the FARC had offered to release Betancourt and other captives in exchange for protection from extradition.

Efforts to negotiate with the FARC over its hostages, who have been held for as long as a decade in jungle camps, are stalled. But the rebels have been weakened by recent deaths of three commanders and desertions fuelled by government bounties.

Uribe said Colombia’s intelligence agency had responded by offering the guerrilla protection from extradition should the hostages be freed, but he gave few details or names.

Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who holds dual Colombian and French nationality, was kidnapped more than five years ago while campaigning. France has been active in trying to obtain her release.

The senior presidency source said the latest information gathered on Betancourt’s health, which appeared very poor in a video of the hostage released in November, was serious but not desperate. But he said the information was not confirmed.

"All the indications we have suggest she is alive and her condition is not too grave," the source said. (Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, writing by Estelle Shirbon)

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