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New push to free Ingrid from FARC rebels

A French humanitarian mission arrived in Colombia on Thursday to help free high-level hostage Ingrid Betancourt.

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Villagers told Manuel Mancera, a parish priest in the nearby town of La Libertad, that in late February – around the same time the FARC was releasing four other hostages – Betancourt was taken to El Capricho's bare-bones health clinic for treatment.

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Today, a handwritten sign on the gate reads "No doctor." The resident physician left town when the rumors that he treated Betancourt began to spread. The nurse went on leave after being grilled by Army, police, and prosecutors. They both denied ever treating Betancourt.

Álvaro, the ambulance driver for the government health service is emphatic: "Ingrid Betancourt was never here." He, too, was questioned by prosecutors and says he was offered asylum in another country and cash. "If I had known something, I would have taken the money and started a new life," he says.

But, Álvaro admits, "Where there's smoke there's fire. The truth will all come out once she's released ... if she's released."

Silence is golden

Father Mancera says that the guerrilla presence in the region is so strong that, despite the government offers of cash, most residents of the villages are afraid to speak out. "They know that if they say something, they are digging their own grave," he says.

But sitting outside his tiny church in La Libertad, sipping coffee between Sunday masses, Mancera, who has worked in the area for more than 20 years, says he's overcome his fear. The priest says he spoke to one person who claims to have been with Betancourt as recently as March 23. "He said she was very weak and in the last stages of depression. When she opens her mouth to speak, she breaks down in tears," the priest says.

The rumors, to which the government gave credibility, led Mr. Uribe to issue a decree offering the immediate release of rebel prisoners if the FARC hands over Betancourt, and said there was a $100 million fund available for rebels who turned themselves in along with hostages.

But while schisms within the FARC have been growing, the leadership is likely to hold out for more that the government's offering in exchange for the most high-profile of their hostages, Valencia says. "Once they give her up, their leverage is gone, and you can pretty much forget about the other hostages, because international pressure will die down," he says.

The FARC reportedly has more than 700 hostages, most for ransom. Some 40 higher-level hostages, including Betancourt, are being held to try to press the government to agree to swap them for jailed rebels.

The rebels unilaterally released six politicians in two separate operations earlier this year, handing them over to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The other swappable hostages include three American defense contractors captured when their plane went down over rebel territory in 2003, three other Colombian politicians, and dozens of police and Army officers.