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Betancourt arrives in France with tears of joy

JENNY BARCHFIELD   07/ 4/08 05:36 PM ET   AP

Ingrid

PARIS — 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.

"We cannot leave them (the hostages) where they are. They are suffering, they are alone."

The rescue mission _ in which a total of 15 hostages were spirited to freedom without a shot being fired _ was a major victory in the Colombian government's fight against the FARC, and Betancourt appealed to the rebels to "be good losers."

She said she expected any future efforts to win the release of hostages to be even more difficult

Asked about a Swiss radio report that a ransom was paid to the rebels for freeing her and the other hostages and that the release was staged, Betancourt said she couldn't doubt the authenticity of what she lived through.

"Honestly, in my heart, I don't think I can be easily duped," she said.

She described the memory of her defeated captor, "this man hunched on the ground, eyes blindfolded, hands behind his back, hands and feet tied. I don't think someone who had received a ransom could have had such an expression."

Senior Colombian military officials also denied a ransom was paid.

Betancourt described her years in the jungle, which she called "an absolutely hostile world, where everything is your enemy, everything is dangerous, everything is against you."

She said she would undergo medical exams Saturday at Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris. Betancourt already had a preliminary medical exam aboard the French government plane that flew her to Paris, but because she went through ill spells during her captivity, she said she wanted a thorough checkup.

Betancourt said only her dreams of getting back to her family kept her going through the long ordeal.

Asked about her plans, Betancourt said she wanted to live with her children, Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19, who reached adulthood in Paris during her captivity.

Betancourt credited her religious faith with helping her survive her captivity and said trips to Roman Catholic churches in France are on her agenda, as is a possible trip to the Vatican to "say hello to the pope."

From the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI sent word Friday that he would be happy to meet with Betancourt as soon as his schedule permits.

Betancourt did not comment on rumors about possible plans to return to politics in France or in Colombia, saying only that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping improve those of others.

Betancourt also said she hoped to write several books and perhaps even a play.

"I think that could possibly allow me to say things I can't say in another way and free myself," said Betancourt, who wore a dark blue suit adorned with a rhinestone-emblazoned brooch of a swallow in flight.

Sarkozy made freeing Betancourt a priority the night he was elected France's president in May 2007. Former President Jacques Chirac also worked for her release, and former 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 his diplomatic efforts kept up the pressure on Colombia to find ways to get her released. But Sarkozy's top aide said he was not informed of the operation that freed her.

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Associated Press writers Angela Doland in Paris and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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Filed by Katharine Zaleski  |