did france blow it for betancourt?

Posted on April 9, 2008

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It’s hard not to feel sorry for the plight of Ingrid Betancourt, the Franco-Colombian politician who has been held hostage by the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for over six years.

The once-thriving woman was kidnapped by FARC after she tried to negotiate with them and is believed to be seriously ill. Recently freed hostages had expressed fears that Betancourt’s condition could deteriorate if she did not receive medical attention soon.

Betancourt is reportedly chained up now because she tried escaping from the rebels, who besides fighting the Colombian government, are notorious for smuggling cocaine and kidnapping Colombian politicians, civilians and even a few Americans.

Understandably, the French government, together with the Spanish and Swiss authorities, has sent a humanitarian/ medical mission to the Colombian jungles where the FARC are based in the hopes of getting Betancourt out to receive medical treatment.

But their approach could have inadvertently worsened things for Betancourt.

Their action, which had not come with prior negotiations or agreements with FARC rebels, might have ticked the rebels off and jeopardized Betancourt’s chance for freedom.

“The French medical mission is not acceptable and much less so when it is not the result of a prior agreement,” FARC’s ruling secretariat said in a statement.

“We do not act under blackmail or under pressure from media campaigns.”

The operation cannot for faulted for its good intention. But it was badly handled and seemed ill thought out. The European governments should have known that FARC comprises merciless terrorists and appealing to their sympathy for Betancourt would not be effective. Could it be that their priority was not just to save a possibly dying woman, but more so to play to the three countries’ home audience, to prove that action has been taken, however flawed it was?

France especially, had made it a priority to have Betancourt freed and might have hoped that its medical mission would move FARC. But by flying there unilaterally, without first having worked something out with either the Colombian government or FARC smacks of rashness to the point of folly.

Experts worry that the latest French initiative could worsen things.

“This rejection contributes to the contamination of the atmosphere,” Alfredo Rangel at Bogota’s Security and Democracy Foundation think tank told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross would have been an ideal intermediary for the French to use to obtain an agreement, given its track recording of securing hostage release. But the French had not approached it for help at all.

The French seemed not to have learned from an earlier failure. In 2003, it too, had tried to send a mission to free Betancourt but ended up empty-handed and received criticisms from the Colombian and Brazilian governments for its actions instead.

If the French were serious about helping Betancourt, they should forget about grandstanding and wasting taxpayers’ money unnecessarily by flying those fruitless attempts over to Colombia. They should have tried harder to reach out to the rebels or intermediaries behind the scenes to get Betancourt freed. Flying in unannounced will only raise the FARC’s suspicions and harden its resolve. That means poor Betancourt will remain captive longer.

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