Ingrid Betancourt: Six years in jungle with little hope

( dpa ) - The bony and sad face of Ingrid Betancourt, seen in November in a photograph, summed up the ordeal that the former Colombian presidential candidate has gone through since she was kidnapped by leftist rebels six years ago.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) consider Betancourt - who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship - their most precious hostage.

The 46-year-old politician has become one of the main symbols of kidnappings in Colombia, a country where some 3,200 people are held against their will, according to non-governmental organizations.

Close to 800 people are held by FARC, and the group regards just over 40 of these as "politically relevant." The rebels hope to exchange these special prisoners, including Betancourt, for at least 500 imprisoned rebels, in a deal that has been discussed for years with no concrete results.

Betancourt was considered a young leader with high prospects in Colombia and made a name for herself as a senator, organizing debates in which several officials had to answer charges of corruption.

Her political capital led her to run as the presidential candidate of the Green Party in the 2002 election, but her life took a turn for the worse on February 23 of that year when she was taken hostage.

Betancourt was kidnapped along with several campaign colleagues, including her vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas, when she decided to enter the southern Colombian jungle just days after peace talks between FARC and former president Andres Pastrana collapsed.

Many warned her not to go, but she insisted, in line with her personal style. On the way, she even ran into military checkpoints where she received renewed warnings. Soldiers told her she could only proceed if she signed a document whereby she assumed responsibility for the possible consequences of her actions.

She signed the papers, and assumed the consequences. Early proof of life included video footage that showed her asking - in a firm voice and with impulsive hand movements - for an exchange of prisoners between the government and FARC.

But everything had changed by late last year, when the most recent proof of life was made public. She appeared seated before wooden boards that improvised as a table, very thin and emaciated, with her hands joined together and a downcast look.

Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has been busy trying to mediate a prisoner exchange along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said recently that she is sure Betancourt will be released, perhaps even this year.

But many analysts believe the former presidential candidate is probably FARC's best means of putting pressure on the Colombian government, and doubt that she would be released outside of a wider exchange deal.

Clara Rojas, her vice presidential candidate and very close friend, was released on January 10 along with former legislator Consuelo Gonzalez.

Betancourt's relatives have wasted no chance to send her messages through programmes on the country's main radio networks, in an effort to keep the hostages company from a distance.

Her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, has gone further still. On two occasions he has got on a plane to throw over the jungle thousands of photographs of Melanie and Lorenzo Delloye, the two children that Betancourt had in her first marriage to a Frenchman. Lecompte hoped some of these photos might reach her.

Betancourt also holds French citizenship, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made her release one of his top foreign policy priorities. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was in Colombia on Thursday to discuss the situation of the hostages.

Jhon Pinchao, a police officer who was kidnapped by FARC and managed to escape last year, said Betancourt's character has changed little and that she has borne punishments "for being rebellious." She was once slapped by a rebel who tried to approach her while she was in the bath.

According to Pinchao, Betancourt managed to escape once, along with former senator Luis Eladio Perez. Five days later they were recaptured by the rebels.

"How did the walk go?" one guard asked them sarcastically when they arrived back at the camp.

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