What will Ingrid Betancourt's South America tour accomplish?

The former Colombian hostage visited eight nations this past week pushing for leaders to support efforts to free hostages still held by leftist rebels.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Crisscrossing the continent on a tour of eight South American nations, Colombia's most famous former hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, hoped to renew regional interest in the remaining captives held by leftist rebels.

"A consensus of all the countries of South America will open the paths for the release of hostages and that may open a hope for peace in Colombia," the former presidential candidate said in Caracas Tuesday after meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on the last leg of the trip.

On the tour, which started with a surprise trip to Colombia Nov. 29 and a meeting with President Álvaro Uribe, Ms. Betancourt also met with the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. All offered their support for Betancourt's campaign to seek hostage talks.

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But the real consensus for action to free the hostages will have to come from within Mr. Uribe's conservative government and top leaders of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), says Gerson Arias, an analyst on peace negotiation for Ideas para la Paz, a think tank in Bogotá.

"There's little concrete to show from the tour now, but it may turn up the pressure on both parts to seek negotiations," says Mr. Arias. "At the moment, though, Uribe seems to have shut the door to that."

The FARC are still holding 28 hostages that the rebels consider "political prisoners" held as bargaining chips with the government. The FARC has another 700 captives being held for ransom, according to official estimates.

Betancourt's rescue boosted Uribe

International pressure on Uribe to negotiate with the rebels dropped dramatically after Betancourt, who is a dual French-Colombian citizen, was freed in July along with three Americans and 10 Colombians in a bloodless operation.

The rescue boosted Uribe's position of not giving in to any rebel demands for the release of the captives.

On Saturday, Uribe said the government had received information that FARC was "plotting a new humanitarian release" of one or more hostages in what he called a "trap" to force negotiations. "We will not accept it," he said, without providing details.

But Betancourt – who after her rescue vowed to fight for the release of the hostages let behind – said she hoped that getting regional leaders involved could bring the two sides closer to talks.

Mr. Chávez, whose leftist government is ideologically akin to the FARC, was instrumental in the rebels' unilateral release of six hostages early this year. But his participation, which Uribe saw as meddling, has soured relations between Venezuela and Colombia.

Can regional leaders help?

"It is important that we can keep counting on [regional leaders] to help us look for a way, an opening, that will allow for the liberation of those who remain behind," Betancourt said at the start of the tour.

On her return trip Wednesday to Paris, where she has been living since July, she was accompanied by Wilson Bueno, a former FARC rebel who deserted last October with Oscar Tulio Lizcano, a conservative politician whom Mr. Bueno held hostage for more than eight years.

As an incentive for other rebels to do the same, Bueno was rewarded for saving Mr. Lizcano with a visa to live in France and $400,000.

But the families of the remaining hostages hold out little hope that other captors will follow suit. Many say that a negotiated deal between the FARC and the government may be the only chance of ever seeing their loved ones – most of whom have been hostages for a decade – again.

Magdalena Rivas has been waiting for her son Elkin Hernández, a police lieutenant, since he was abducted by the FARC in 1998.

"I don't know what will come of [Betancourt's] tour," she says. "Hopefully she made them more sensitive to the plight of the hostages so they can try to soften Uribe's heart, so that he will negotiate and I can see my son again."

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