Los Angeles Times
November 30, 2007
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombian officials released today newly obtained videos of rebel-held hostages, among them three U.S. defense contractors and a former presidential candidate -- the first images in years providing evidence the captives may be alive.
The tapes were seized in the arrest Thursday evening in Bogota of three suspected urban members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, said Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government's peace commissioner.
Also recovered were a series of letters apparently written by the hostages, including what appeared to be the will of U.S. contractor Thomas Howes.
The videos of hostages held by Colombia's leading rebel group were made public immediately after their discovery, Restrepo said. They were apparently written and recorded as recently as late October.
The U.S., French and Colombian governments had demanded the so-called "proof of life" during Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's recent ill-fated mediation effort to obtain the release of 45 high-profile hostages held by the FARC. But the FARC, by all accounts, never delivered the material to him.
The videotapes, which were played at a news conference without sound, showed an extremely gaunt Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French national seized while campaigning for president in 2002, apparently chained and in front of a jungle backdrop.
In the images, Betancourt has long hair and stares blankly at the ground. No images of her have been seen since 2003.
Betancourt has become a cause celebre in France and that country's president called the video "undeniable" evidence that Betancourt "is alive."
"This encourages us to boost our efforts to win her release," President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
"It is a sad image, but she is alive," Betancourt's sister, Astrid Betancourt, said on French television broadcaster LCI. "I am extremely moved to see these images of my sister."
The Colombian government said that the tapes carried the time stamp for Betancourt of Oct. 24, 2007. The tape of the Americans carried the date of the Jan. 1, 2007. But a kidnapped Colombia soldier, who appeared on the same tape, said the recording was being made on Oct. 23.
Astrid Betancourt said the October dates indicate the rebels had intended to give the footage to Chavez, who was pushing for proof of life at that time.
The Americans -- Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves -- were abducted by the FARC after their surveillance plane went down in a FARC-held southern Colombia jungle in 2003.
In the images, each American briefly stands alone on the screen, also against a jungle backdrop, looking haggard. The rebels had not released any images of them since 2003. The U.S. embassy in Bogota has called the three Americans the longest-held U.S. hostages currently in captivity.
The FARC, which uses kidnapping as a tool to raise money and pressure the government, are offering to release these and other high-profile hostages in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of rebels from Colombian and U.S. prisons. Some hostages have endured a decade in FARC captivity.
Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, is well respected within the FARC and had been involved in trying to mediate a deal between the government and the rebels until last week, when President Alvaro Uribe ended his role, saying Chavez had overstepped his bounds by directly contacting the head of Colombia's army.
That defied a direct order from Uribe, the Colombian president said.
In justifying its decision to end Chavez's role as mediator, the Colombian government said the FARC had failed to respond to the Venezuelan president's entreaties to give evidence the hostages were still alive.
Restrepo said the five tapes also showed images of another 12 Colombians, mainly police and soldiers, and that other documents seized Thursday included a series of letters apparently written by hostages.
One undated letter was from Howes to his wife, and another, dated Nov. 26, 2006, was his will, said the government. Another note was from Gonsalves to the military commander of the FARC, known as "Mono Jojoy," dated Oct. 23, 2007, and Betancourt wrote a letter to her mother, dated Oct. 24, 2007.
The government did not reveal the text.
Chavez's dismissal from the process has led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries, with the Venezuelan leader announcing Wednesday he would have "no type of relationship" with the Colombian government as long as Uribe was president.
Families of the kidnapped have demanded that Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC, invite Chavez back in to the process, saying that his involvement was the best hope in years of freeing their loved ones.
Uribe has advocated military rescues of the kidnapped, something opposed by all the families of the abducted, who fear the hostages will be killed in crossfire. Since taking office in 2002, Uribe's administration has had no face-to-face meetings with the rebels.