Hero's welcome for French hostage

July 4, 2008 1:51:51 PM PDT
Arriving to a hero's welcome in France, Ingrid Betancourt said Friday that she cried a lot during her six years as a prisoner in the Colombian jungle. Today, she said, "I cry with joy."French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife met the French-Colombian politician on the tarmac of an air base southwest of Paris, showering her with hugs, kisses and smiles.

Betancourt, 46, became a cause celebre in France after her abduction in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency. During her captivity by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, supporters around France held candlelight vigils and benefit concerts to attract world attention to her plight.

Her release in an ingenious Colombian military operation Wednesday was greeted here with a flood of enthusiasm. Hundreds of people, some waving Colombian or French flags, many with cameras, lined up Friday behind police barriers around Paris' Elysee presidential palace in hopes of catching a glimpse of her.

"France is my home and you are my family," Betancourt said in an address from the wind-swept runway broadcast live on French television.

Addressing the French people, she said their support and mobilization in her favor "saved my life."

"I have cried a lot during this time from pain and indignation. Today, I cry with joy," she said, her voice choked and eyes moist.

Sarkozy praised Betancourt as a beacon of hope for people in dire situations.

"All those, like you, who suffer throughout the world should know that ... there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said the French leader, flanked by his wife, former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Speaking later at a reception in a gilded hall at the presidential palace, Betancourt urged Sarkozy to keep fighting for the liberation of the hostages still in the FARC's hands, estimated by Colombia's government to number about 700.

"I'm sorry to ask you this like this, in public," she told Sarkozy as a crowd of hundreds cheered and cameras flashed. "But we still need you.

"All those who suffer, like you, throughout the world should know that ... there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said in greeting her. "You are free, radiant, with your life ahead of you and surrounded by your family."

Betancourt, her family and supporters later went to a party at the presidential palace staged in her honor Friday. Hundreds of people, some carrying Colombian or French flags and many with cameras, lined up behind police barriers around the Elysee palace in hopes of getting a glimpse of her.

She exhibited a sense of humor in describing her ordeal in the jungle. "There was no sun, no sky, just a green ceiling. I am very ecological, but no, that was too much," she said, to laughter from the gathered supporters.

Betancourt was to undergo medical exams Saturday at Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris, Sarkozy's office said. It said the chief doctor in the French president's office, Christophe Fernandez, already gave Betancourt a preliminary medical exam aboard the French government plane that carried her to France.

From the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI sent word Friday that he would be happy to meet with Betancourt as soon as his schedule permits. He had met with her mother at the Vatican in February.

Betancourt spent much of her childhood in France and attended university at Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Her own children ? Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19 ? reached adulthood in Paris during her captivity.

Betancourt was reunited with her children in Colombia on Thursday. Interviewed by Europe-1 radio before her arrival in France, said she was proud of how her children had forged "extraordinary characters" in her absence.

She recalled humiliating treatment by the FARC, saying she had to wear chains 24 hours a day for three years.

"When you have a chain around your neck, you have to keep your head down and try to accept your fate without succumbing entirely to humiliation, without forgetting who you are," she said.

Sarkozy made freeing Betancourt a priority the night he was elected France's president in May 2007. The previous government of Jacques Chirac also worked for her release, and then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is a longtime friend of Betancourt.

Betancourt's release was a big image boost for Sarkozy; even his rivals acknowledged that his diplomatic efforts kept up the pressure on Colombia to find ways to get her released.

But Sarkozy had been pushing for negotiations with the FARC, not a military raid, and his top aide said he was not informed of the operation that freed her until minutes before the first Colombian media reports about it emerged.

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Associated Press writer Angela Doland contributed to this report.

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