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Rebels reject French medical mission in Colombia to help hostage Ingrid Betancourt
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    BOGOTA, Colombia — Leaders of Colombia’s main rebel group on Tuesday rejected a French medical mission that flew to Bogota to aid ailing hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate who was kidnapped six years ago.
    The group said France had not coordinated with the rebels before its plane arrived.
    ‘‘We don’t respond to blackmail or media campaigns,’’ the rebels said.
    The communique from the ruling secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was dated April 4, the day after a French government plane arrived in Bogota, carrying doctors and diplomats who hoped at least to see Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen.
    The statement noted that the group, known as the FARC, had unilaterally released six hostages earlier this year as a ‘‘gesture of generosity and political will.’’ It called again on the Colombian government to grant a demilitarized zone where imprisoned rebels could be swapped for guerrilla-held hostages.
    ‘‘Rebels imprisoned in the jails of Colombia and the United States are our priority,’’ the rebels said in a statement posted Tuesday on a Web site sympathetic to the FARC.
    The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent the mission to Colombia, said in Paris that it did not immediately have any comment on the FARC’s statement.
    Concerns for Betancourt’s welfare are running high because freed hostages who had spent time with her said she was depressed and suffering from Hepatitis B.
    Betancourt, who was kidnapped six years ago while campaigning for the presidency, is one of dozens of hostages being held by the rebels, who want to swap them for hundreds of rebels jailed in Colombia and two rebels imprisoned in the United States.
    The rebels’ captives include three U.S. defense contractors whose plane was shot down during a drug surveillance mission.
    President Alvaro Uribe promised that Colombian troops would not interfere with the French mission. But Betancourt’s sister, Astrid Betancourt, said the rebels likely feared it could still be dangerous.
    ‘‘It’s possible for the Colombian army to follow this mission and locate the FARC camps. That’s why the FARC said no to this mission,’’ she said.
    The FARC also has long insisted the government demilitarize two counties in Colombia for broader talks on a humanitarian exchange of hostages and prisoners.
    The new rebel statement said that if Uribe had created such a zone at the start of the year, ‘‘Ingrid Betancourt and soldiers and the jailed guerrillas would now have regained their freedom and it would be a victory for everyone.’’
    The government once ceded a huge swath of territory to the FARC for peace talks, but negotiations collapsed four years later when the FARC hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator in 2002. The rebels had used the demilitarized zone to stash hostages, launch attacks and oversee cocaine production.
    Herve Marro, spokesman for Betancourt’s support committee in France, told The Associated Press that ‘‘the FARC are showing a great disdain for life and for liberty.’’
    The hostage’s sister, Astrid, said, ‘‘It’s urgent to re-establish a climate of confidence that would favor negotiations, to secure the lives of hostages by asking for an end to bombardments in the zone where the camps are.’’
    In a document the Colombian government says it recovered from a dead rebel commander’s laptop, the rebels complained that as a hostage, Betancourt has a ‘‘volcanic temper’’ and said she ‘‘is rude and provokes the guerrillas who are in charge of keeping her.’’
    The document, one of many being studied by Interpol to ascertain its authenticity, is dated Feb. 28, 2008, and was apparently written by Raul Reyes, the FARC spokesman who killed at the beginning of March in a military strike.
    Also Tuesday, a Colombian court sentenced nine rebel leaders to 40 years in prison for killing a state governor, a former defense minister and eight others during a botched hostage-rescue operation in 2003.
    Gov. Guillermo Gaviria and former Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri were among those killed as a rescue team of soldiers approached the rebel camp where they were being held as hostages.
    The FARC’s top leader, Pedro Antonio Marin — alias Manuel ‘‘Sureshot’’ Marulanda — was among those sentenced in absentia by a court in Medellin Tuesday for murder and kidnapping.
    The killing of the hostages in 2003 is the main reason nearly all families of hostages oppose military rescue attempts.
    Associated Press Writer Julien Proult in Paris contributed to this report.

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