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Unstoppable ex-hostage revels in freedom in France

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ELAINE GANLEY | July 7, 2008 03:06 PM EST | AP

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PARIS — Freedom tastes sweet and Ingrid Betancourt is lapping it up with the same drive and determination that kept her alive in the Colombian jungle for six years, sometimes chained to a tree.

Five days after being rescued along with three Americans and 11 Colombians and three days after coming to France, Betancourt, who has dual nationality, is ebullient, and tireless.

She is meeting with officials, a former professor, clinching a deal to write a play and giving interviews nonstop.

The 46-year-old, who was a cause celebre in France as a captive, is a hero today, portrayed as an icon of courage and an inspiration.

It was the French campaign to free Betancourt, captured while campaigning for Colombia's presidency in 2002, that drew international attention to the hundreds of hostages held by leftist rebels. Freed, Betancourt is keeping up the drumbeat.

She has addressed two radio messages to hostages still held by leftist insurgents and on Monday advised President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia to tone down the "radical, extremist language of hate" toward her former captors. The 15 hostages were freed in a military operation that tricked their captors, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"I feel that I owe so much ...," Betancourt told the French magazine Pelerin when asked why she accepts so many interview requests. "I owe so much to the love of all for being here that I'm not able to say no."

On Tuesday, she is to visit the French Senate and on Wednesday lawmakers at the National Assembly, the powerful lower house. Her face or her voice, unmarked by fatigue, are on the French airwaves several times a day. She will be awarded the Legion of Honor on July 14, Bastille Day, France's national holiday.

Betancourt met with a reporter from Pelerin, a Christian weekly, Sunday night after praying at the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre, her second visit to a church that day. Earlier, she prayed at Saint-Sulpice with her one-time professor, former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose own secret bid to free her failed and irritated the Colombian government.

Betancourt, who wears a small rosary she made in the jungle, says God saved her from bitterness during her captivity.

"To be a hostage places you in a situation of constant humiliation," she told Pelerin. While captive, pronouncing the biblical words "bless your enemy" was "magic," she said.

Now, she is asking Colombia's leaders to do likewise.

"We have reached the point where we must change the radical, extremist vocabulary of hate, of very strong words that intimately wound the human being," she said in an interview Monday on Radio France International.

Betancourt described a FARC commander named Enrique as "absolutely abominable." Still, she contemplates his life in jail.

"He must be living a nightmare now," she said, but in "much better conditions than anything I had."

Betancourt spent part of her captivity chained to a tree and at one point fell seriously ill. However, initial medical tests suggest she has not contracted any serious illness.

Her group often marched some 15 miles a day through the jungle, she told France 24 television. But for six months at one point, while in a camp surrounded with barbed wire, the hostages were treated to the luxury of several books, including "Harry Potter," she said.

Betancourt's two children, Melanie and Lorenzo, accompanied her on some of her Paris visits, along with her sister Astrid and her mother. However, she admits she has not yet had quality time with her family.

The former Colombian senator lived on the edge before her capture. She was kidnapped while campaigning for the presidency in a known dangerous zone.

"What I'm living is a miracle," she told Pelerin.