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France Celebrates Release of Hostage

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2008 8:04 PM

PARIS, July 2 -- The rescue of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt from more than six years of captivity by rebels in Colombia triggered an outpouring of relief and emotion in France, capped by a live late-night television broadcast by President Nicolas Sarkozy announcing the news while flanked by members of Betancourt's family.

"Today seals the end of an ordeal that lasted for more than six years," Sarkozy said in an 11:30 p.m. television address from the Elysée Palace as Betancourt's son, daughter and sister smiled, hugged each other and barely supressed their tears. Sarkozy said that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and members of Betancourt's family would leave for Colombia within hours on a French government plane to reunite the family.

"Ingrid is in good health, on a Colombian military base," Sarkozy said. "I want President Uribe to receive the gratitude of the entire people of France."

Betancourt's sister, Astrid Betancourt, said that when Colombia's defense minister told her of the release by telephone, "I had a hard time thinking that it was true."

Ingrid's daughter, Melanie Delloye-Betancourt, called it "the moment we've been waiting for for so long."

"Words can't express what our family feels tonight. We're looking forward to the moment when we will hug her." Her voice cracking, she thanked Sarkozy in particular, saying that since he took office last summer, "things started to change, and today mummy is here. . . . It is as if we were waking up from a nightmare."

Sarkozy, who took an intense personal interest in Betancourt's release, urged her kidnappers from the FARC rebel group to "stop your absurd fight," adding that France was "ready to welcome the ones who will give up the armed struggle."

With her dual Colombian and French citizenship, Betancourt became a huge celebrity in France. Her father was a Colombian diplomat, and she moved to the country after he was posted here. She grew up in Paris, attending the city's prestigious Institute of Political Sciences, also known as Sciences Po. She married a French diplomat, which allowed her to become a French citizen. That marriage ended in divorce.

Her former husband and their son and daughter live in Paris, and they made Betancourt's release a cause celebre.

Supporters organized rallies and concerts across the country to push for her release. A huge banner with her picture was draped over the front of city hall in Paris.

Her case was followed closely by the French government and the French media as well, and Sarkozy tried without success to broker a deal for her freedom.

"When I think of God, and I think of His blessing of all of us, I think of France," Betancourt wrote in a long October 2007 letter to her mother that was released last December. "Since the initiation of this kidnapping, France has had a voice of wisdom and love. It has never given up; it has never accepted the passing of time as the only solution, never faltered in defense of our right to be defended. When the night was at its darkest, France was the beacon. When the request for our freedom was disapproved, France did not keep silent."

That letter sparked an outpouring of sympathy for Betancout. It was released simultaneously with pictures showing her sitting on a wood chair in a jungle, looking gaunt and downcast. Reports indicated that she was suffering variously from hepatitis B, malnutrition, liver ailments, tropical skin diseases and depression.

"This is a very dense jungle where the sunlight scarcely ever penetrates, and it is barren of affection, sympathy or tenderness," Betancourt said in opening the 12-page letter to her mother.

"I am tired, Mamita, tired of suffering," she wrote. "These nearly six years of captivity have proven that I am not as resistant, not as brave, not as intelligent, not as strong as I thought. I have put up many battles, have tried to escape several times, have tried to keep up hope like one keeps one's head above water. But, Mamita darling, I give up . . . . I am in poor physical condition. I haven't been eating; my appetite has shut down; my hair is falling out in clumps; I have no desire for anything."

The description of captivity was dire.

"I live, or survive, in a hammock strung between two poles, covered with mosquito netting and a canvas that acts as a roof, which makes me feel like I have a house. I have a shelf on which to keep my belongings, that is to say, the knapsack with my clothes and a bible, my only luxury. Everything is prepared to leave on the run. Here, nothing is one's own, nothing lasts; uncertainty and precariousness are the only constant. The order is given at any moment to pack up and one gets to sleep stretched out anywhere like an animal. . . . Every day less and less of myself remains."

Betancourt's former husband Fabrice Delloye, was ecstatic when interviewed late Wednesday on EUROPE1 radio, saying that Sarkozy called him personally with the good news.

"I want to thank everyone that worked for her release," he said. "I could not believe it. This story will finish well."

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