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Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 11:46 UK

Rescue boosts Uribe's standing

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Ingrid Betancourt hugs French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at the airport in Bogota , 3 July
Ms Betancourt described her treatment in the jungle as cruel

The successful rescue of 15 hostages from the clutches of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) has had a massive political impact, nationally and internationally.

It has boosted President Alvaro Uribe and his tough stance against the Marxist rebels and silenced demands that the government make concessions to the guerrillas.

Now the perception is that the military defeat of the Farc is not only possible but inevitable, something that seven years ago would have been unthinkable, when the guerrilla army numbered more than 16,000 fighters and held sway in over a third of the country.

"We are at the end of the end of the Farc," said Admiral Guillermo Barrera, the head of the Colombian Navy.

Praise for president

The latest operation has shown what total disarray the Farc are in and how there appears to be little, if any, reliable contact between the ruling body and the commanders on the ground.

The rescue has vindicated Mr Uribe's uncompromising position with respect to negotiating with the Farc and justified his refusal to make concessions in order to gain the release of hostages.

He had been under pressure from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the release of Ingrid Betancourt - and in a rather more outspoken manner by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who called Mr Uribe, among others things, a "mafioso" and a "warmonger" for his refusal to sit down with the guerrillas.

Captured Farc guerrillas in Bogota, 3 July
Two Farc rebels were captured by soldiers during the hostage release

Now both leaders have softened their positions. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who accompanied Ms Betancourt's children as they travelled from Paris to meet up with their mother, spoke for President Sarkozy and said that France "admired what had been done".

President Chavez said he was "delighted" and "jubilant" at the successful rescue and was looking forward to welcoming Mr Uribe for a planned visit in the near future admitting that "we said some hard things. Between brothers such things happen".

In January, the Venezuelan leader called for the Farc to be taken off international terrorist lists and insisted the rebels be recognised as a legitimate belligerent force.

He has since backtracked on that, condemning the guerrillas for their policy of kidnapping and telling them that it was time to end the fighting.

Consummate politician

The successful rescue of the hostages will no doubt boost Mr Uribe's already staggering approval ratings, which hover at around 80%.

It will also perhaps secure any re-election plans he might have. President Uribe has already changed the constitution once, which allowed him to stand again as a candidate in the 2006 elections.

He has not ruled out tampering with the constitution once more and indeed one of the political parties that support him, Partido de la U, is currently working on collecting enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the matter.

Ms Betancourt also supported any potential re-election bid by Mr Uribe, when she said that the 2006 re-election of Mr Uribe, with his hard-line policies, was seen by the guerrillas as a great blow. When asked about a third Uribe term she said:

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe greets Ingrid Betancourt at Narino palace in Bogota
Ms Betancourt will fight for the liberation of the remaining hostages

"Why not? It is interesting. That does not mean to say that I would necessarily vote for him as perhaps I have more affinity with other candidates."

And what now for Ingrid Betancourt?

She looks set to pick up where she left off in February 2002 when she was kidnapped by the Farc at a rebel road block.

Then, she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency and since her release she has acted like the consummate politician she is, talking exhaustively with the media, praising the military, the government and the foreign nations that worked so hard on behalf of the kidnap victims.

She already has her new mission mapped out, fighting for the liberation of the hostages still in Farc hands.

"We need to fight for the freedom of the others, who are still in the jungle, still held by Farc," she said.

"There are a lot of people round the world who want to help us - fighting for the liberty of other Colombians."

The former presidential candidate, now with a profile and status the envy of politicians the world over, is in a very strong position to act as ambassador and activist for the release of the remaining hostages and the search for an end to the country's 44-year civil conflict.

Ingrid Betancourt will now no doubt be a permanent fixture on Colombia's political stage.



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