Betancourt kidnapper sends letter of apology to family

More than six years later, Nolberto Uni remembers clearly the day when he kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt.

Betancourt kidnapper sends letter of apology to family
It was Feb. 23, 2002, and Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, was traveling in a jeep on the campaign trail. Uni, then a fighter with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was manning a checkpoint on a lonely country road.

"The order was to detain all politicians of national stature," Uni said Tuesday in the maximum-security prison he now calls home. That Betancourt, one of Colombia's best-known political figures, passed by "was a coincidence."

As the world focuses on the plight of the French-Colombian politician who is said to be ill with malaria, depression and a host of other maladies, Uni said he regrets his role in her abduction.

"I do feel remorse," Uni said. "The family — her mother, her children, her husband — a lot of people are suffering."

That remorse led him to pen a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which he apologizes and details the reasons for his decision to abandon the FARC in 2003, at great risk to his life.

The rebels are holding Betancourt and about three dozen other high-profile hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors. For their release, the FARC wants a temporary demilitarized zone and freedom for hundreds of jailed rebels.

Betancourt's plight has become a cause celebre in France. Earlier this month, Sarkozy launched a humanitarian mission to treat or rescue her after receiving reports that she was in grave health.

But the delegation turned back after FARC leaders said they would not unilaterally release hostages and would only exchange Betancourt and other captives for rebels imprisoned in Colombia and the U.S.

In Paris on Tuesday, Betancourt's sister Astrid declined to comment on Uni's apology. But she told The Associated Press that to her knowledge there is no basis for reports that her captive sibling has hepatitis B and is near death.

"What is crystal clear for me is that my sister is weak," Astrid Betancourt said. "But that doesn't mean that she is so ill she's on the brink of death."

Back in 2002, Betancourt at first thought the uniform-clad guerrillas who stopped her vehicle were soldiers, according Uni. After radioing his commander to report the capture of Betancourt and her assistant Clara Rojas, he told the politician she was being detained.

"Her face changed color," the 36-year old Uni said. "She didn't say anything to me."

Just then a guerrilla stepped on a land mine, blowing off his foot. Only then did Rojas and Betancourt realize the extent of the trouble they were in, Uni said.

His bloc of the FARC held Betancourt and Rojas for another eight or nine months. "She was guarded by 20 or 30 guerrillas," Uni said. "One day at 5 a.m., they escaped."

The two lasted half a day on the run before the guerrillas found them in the jungle and took them back to camp.

"That was when her feet were chained together," he said.

Growing up in an impoverished part of southern Colombia, Uni said he joined the guerrillas at age 15, seeing few other prospects. He rose through the ranks of the insurgency, becoming part of the security unit of the guerrillas' maximum leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda.

But Uni grew tired of life with FARC, feeling they had abandoned their ideological roots and were becoming too bound up by rules.

"You could face a trial for drinking two beers, for impregnating your partner," he said.

So he fled in 2003 along with six other guerrillas.

"If you desert, you are shot," Uni said. "The FARC are your enemies not just for one or two years, but for life." He thinks the FARC executed his brother and fellow rebel in retaliation.

Uni handed himself over to Colombian authorities and began a new life in Bogota as a demobilized guerrilla. But he hid his involvement in the kidnapping of Betancourt and Rojas, who was released by the FARC earlier this year.

A fellow guerrilla snitched on him, and he was quickly convicted for the crimes.

Today he, too, is a prisoner — serving a 34-year sentence in a maximum-security prison in the central town of Combita.

Uni does not have high hopes for the prospects of a humanitarian exchange — long stalled by both sides' refusal to give much ground — that could lead to Betancourt's freedom.

"It looks very difficult to me," he said.

Last Mod: 16 Nisan 2008, 13:47
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