<!--:es-->Sarkozy meets Colombian president over hostage crisis<!--:-->

Sarkozy meets Colombian president over hostage crisis

PARIS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe on Monday to press for action to free hostages held by leftist rebels, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt who has become a cause celebre in France.

Uribe thanked Sarkozy for his long-standing support for Colombia in confronting the insurgents from FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), considered a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States.

“I would like to thank President Sarkozy for this meeting, which was very trustful, frank and constructive,” said Uribe following a nearly hour-long meeting at the Elysee presidential palace.

The Colombian president arrived in Paris on Sunday on the first leg of a European tour that will take him to Brussels, Spain and Switzerland to win backing for new mediation led by Colombia’s Roman Catholic Church. “Concerning the facilitating role of the church, the president of the republic asserted that France supports all initiatives that could contribute to the release of the hostages,” said Elysee spokesman David Martinon.

French, Spanish and Swiss mediators who will take part in the new effort “could be useful” if they have enough leeway to lead negotiations, he added. Negotiations have hit a wall over demands from FARC to swap 44 of its most high-profile hostages, including Betancourt and three Americans, for 500 rebels held in Colombian prisons.

“We are making every effort,” Uribe told Europe 1 radio in Paris ahead of his meeting with Sarkozy, who has closely followed the case of Betancourt and singled out her release as a foreign policy priority upon taking office in May.

“It’s obvious that we have used all of the means at our disposal and we will continue to use all of the means,” he said.

Winning the hostages’ release is “a priority”, said Uribe, but he added: “Our priority is also to crush the terrorists.”

The Colombian president is under pressure from the Europeans to reach a deal with FARC, with France saying last month that it was ready to take in rebels as part of a settlement to the crisis.

“We are ready to work for a humanitarian accord, but we need to be sure it cannot be exploited by terrorists,” Uribe said after his talks with the French president.

“We are ready to negotiate for peace, just as ferociously as we are combatting terrorism (provided) the terrorists cease their activities and want peace.”

Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement Monday denouncing Uribe’s designation of FARC as a terrorist organisation, saying it did not help to encourage favourable negotiations with the guerilla group.

“Rather than getting bogged down in a sterile semantic debate about what to call the FARC, the Colombian government should be more concerned about the fact that the parties to the conflict (…) continue to disregard the fundamental tenets of international human rights and humanitarian law,” it said.

Critics of the Columbian approach to the hostage crisis have hailed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s recent interventions. Earlier this month FARC released two female captives after mediation by Chavez.

On Sunday the guerrilla group rejected a request from Uribe to allow the Red Cross to examine the state of health of hostages including Betancourt, who was seized in February 2002 while campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

The rebels fear the Colombian military could use the Red Cross operation as a means to locate their positions in the jungle.

Uribe said he would seek help from Sarkozy in setting up an international medical mission for the hostages.

In November, Colombia released videos seized from rebels that for the first time in years showed Betancourt in a jungle, looking frail and gaunt, prompting her former husband, son and daughter who live in France to step up their campaign for her release.

Uribe on Sunday met with Betancourt’s family, who appealed to him to negotiate with FARC over the release of the 46-year-old politician, for whom large posters have been displayed at the French Senate and the Paris city hall.

After France, Uribe is to head to Brussels to meet EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Tuesday. He then goes to Spain, where he will meet King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

On Thursday, Uribe is scheduled to visit Davos for the annual international economic summit.