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World News

France concerned by Colombian plan to free hostages

PARIS (Reuters) - France on Saturday criticized a decision by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to send in the army to try to free a French-Colombian national and three Americans held hostage for more than three years by leftist guerrillas.

In this file photo Yolanda Pulecio, mother of kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (right photo), prays during a mass in Bogota, February 23, 2007. France on Saturday criticized a decision by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to send in the army to free a French-Colombian national and three Americans held hostage by leftist guerrillas. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

Uribe ordered the military on Friday to intensify the hunt for the four, who are being held by the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in jungle hide-outs, after an escaped hostage said he saw them just weeks ago.

“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.”

One of the hostages is Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who also holds French nationality and whose plight is followed closely in France.

Speaking in southern Colombia, Uribe said on Saturday he would respect initiatives from the French government but would continue to fight against the FARC.

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

Betancourt, born in Bogota, studied in France and obtained French nationality when she married a fellow student.

FARC guerrillas captured Betancourt and her assistant in February 2002 while she was campaigning for president. The Americans -- Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell -- were captured in 2003 after their surveillance plane crashed while spotting coca crops used to make cocaine.

Paris City Hall has erected a large poster of Betancourt outside the building and Sarkozy, who took office this week, met Betancourt’s two children in Paris on Friday, where he said he would help seek her release.

France has put pressure on Colombia in the past to seek a negotiated settlement with the FARC over the hostages.

Uribe announced the moves to free them after an escaped hostage, police officer Jhon Frank Pinchao, said he had seen other hostages less than three weeks ago.

That was the first concrete detail about Betancourt and the three Americans since rebels released videos of them in 2003.

Additional reporting by Javier Mozzo in Bogota

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