Captured videos revive hopes for hostages

· Tape seized after arrest of Colombia rebels
· Evidence follows end of Chávez mediation effort

Videotapes of hostages held by rebels in the dense jungles of Colombia were released yesterday in the first proof in years that they were still alive.

The videos show an emaciated Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship, three US state department contractors, and Colombian politicians and soldiers, some of whom have been held for as long as a decade.

The Colombian government, which aired the videos with no sound, said the evidence had been seized after the arrest on Thursday of three suspected urban members of the leftist rebel group Farc, which is holding the hostages to pressure the government to free jailed guerrillas. The videos show 16 of the hostages.

The evidence was recovered a week after President Alvaro Uribe abruptly ended the latest efforts to broker a hostage-for-prisoner swap with Farc. In August Uribe had invited Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, to mediate with Farc, which admires the firebrand leader. But his efforts were cut short after the Venezuelan leader failed to present the proof that the hostages were still alive he had announced he would hand over to France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French leader has taken a close interest in the fate of the hostages, especially Betancourt. Sarkozy said the video was "undeniable" evidence that she was alive. "This encourages us to boost our efforts to win her release," he said.

The new images of Betancourt contrast starkly with the video of her in 2003, where she was defiant, demanding the government secure her release.

In the new video, which had a date stamp of October 24 2007, Betancourt kept her head bowed, her waist-long hair hanging limply over her left shoulder. She appeared to be chained and did not speak.

"I see my sister as I have never seen her," Betancourt's sister Astrid said in a radio interview. "She looks dispirited."

The images of the US defence contractors - Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were abducted after their plane went down in Colombia in 2003 - carry a date of January 1 2007, though a kidnapped soldier on the same tape says the recording was made on October 23.

Stansell's girlfriend, Patricia Medina, said the videos show Chávez's efforts were paying off.

"I am super happy to see him," she said. "But we're very sad about the end of the mediation."

Ana Buitrago, mother of kidnapped policeman Julio César Buitrago, said her heart had "filled with joy" at seeing her son, taken in a 1998 rebel attack on the town of Miraflores. "We all hope there are new negotiations soon."

Chávez's dismissal from the process has led to a bitter diplomatic row between Venezuela and Colombia. Chávez said he would have "no type of relationship" with the Colombian government as long as Uribe was president. Uribe accused Chávez of wanting to "build an empire" and wanting to see a "terrorist government" in Colombia run by Farc.

The row dashed hopes of freeing the hostages. But Piedad Córdoba, a Liberal party senator who acted as joint mediator with Chávez, told the Colombian senate this week that tremendous progress had been made with Farc.

The rebels, she said, had backed down on some of their demands, such as a safe haven. Had the mediation efforts not ended, "the humanitarian accord would have been irreversible" and might have paved the way toward full-blown peace talks, she said.

The videos "ratify that we were doing things right and that we were not irresponsible", Córdoba said yesterday. The seized evidence was apparently the proof of life Chávez and Córdoba had been expecting.


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, have been fighting the state for more than 40 years in the name of Marxist revolution. The peasant-based army has shrunk from 17,000 troops to no more than 7,000 and retreated to mountain and jungle outposts in the five years since President Alvaro Uribe undertook his "democratic security" policies. They want to exchange the 45 hostages for about 500 jailed rebels but have demand a safe haven. After the failed experiment of granting Farc a demilitarised zone, Uribe has said he would not cede one centimetre.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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