French and Swiss ebvoys in Colombia to meet with FARC

A French and a Swiss envoy are visiting Colombia to meet the new top commander of the country's main leftist rebel group and discuss the possible liberation of hostages, the president's press secretary disclosed Monday.

îîThe two European delegates entered Colombia in the past few days, asked the government for authorization to head out for this direct encounter with the FARC's Secretariat … authorization conceded by the government,'' Cesar Mauricio Velasquez said.

Colombian officials say the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hold about 700 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen who was running for Colombia's presidency when she was kidnapped in 2002. Betancourt is a cause celebre in Europe and French President Nikolas Sarkozy has vigorously sought her release.

The French and Swiss mission îîseeks a prisoner swap tending toward the liberation of all the hostages,'' Velasquez told Bogota-based Caracol Radio. Colombian military operations were not suspended during their visit, he added.

A senior Colombian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, earlier identified the two envoys to The Associated Press as Noel Saez of France and Jean Pierre Cotard of Switzerland.

It was not known whether the pair in fact met with Alfonso Cano, who was named senior FARC leader after the rebels' longtime patriarch and co-founder, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack on March 26 at age 78.

Colombia has long authorized France, Switzerland and Spain to negotiate with the FARC regarding a prisoner swap. Their efforts have had little success amid a military offensive that has driven the FARC … including Cano … into near hibernation.

On March 1, the FARC's foreign minister, Raul Reyes, was killed in a Colombian raid in Ecuador. Reyes had been France's lone interlocutor.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's government has been unable to agree with the FARC on terms for a meeting on neutral ground that could facilitate an eventual prisoner swap.

The guerrillas freed six civilian hostages in January and February in an effort brokered by Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez. But the FARC subsequently said there would be no more unilateral releases.

Chavez recently called on the FARC to free all its hostages and lay down its arms.

AP-ES-06-30-08 2250EDT