World News

France sees Lula role in Colombia hostage talks

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could help broker a deal to free hostages held by Colombia’s Marxist rebels, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Thursday.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a G8+5 Climate Change Dialogue forum, in Brasilia, February 21, 2008. Lula could help broker a deal to free hostages held by Colombia's Marxist rebels, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Thursday. REUTERS/Jamil Bittar

Kouchner was visiting Colombia as part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to secure the freedom of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held by FARC guerrillas for six years in hidden jungle camps.

Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez has led mediation efforts with the FARC and last month won the release of two hostages but he has upset Colombia and the United States by showing political support for rebel leaders.

After meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Kouchner said Brazil’s Lula could help mediate a deal.

“Both President Uribe and President Sarkozy have excellent relations with Lula and they have talked about collaboration and a path they both could take toward freeing the hostages,” he said.

“Before, this was a Colombian problem ... now there is political concern in Latin America,” he said, adding that other countries in the region might also get involved.

The FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- is holding dozens of hostages it wants to swap for rebels in jails. The captives include Betancourt and three American contractors captured five years ago on a counter-drug mission.

Started as a peasant army fighting for socialism in the 1960s, the FARC has been weakened by Uribe’s U.S.-backed security drive and the conflict has ebbed. U.S. and European Union officials label the FARC a drug-trafficking terrorist group.

Betancourt, a former lawmaker with dual nationality, was snatched by the FARC on a remote rural road in February 2002 as she campaigned for the presidency. Sarkozy has made securing her release a foreign policy priority.

Guerrillas recently announced a plan to hand over three former lawmakers to Chavez and Kouchner said a fourth ailing captive could also be freed. In January, the rebels freed two female hostages to a Venezuelan delegation.

Chavez won praise for brokering that deal, but he angered Bogota by demanding the FARC get more political recognition. Colombia had initially invited him to help as a negotiator but later charged him with favouring the guerrillas.

Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Kieran Murray