BOGOTA (AFP) — Colombia on Friday released recently-seized videos of hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and three US nationals, hailed by relatives as the first sign in years their loved ones are alive.
"This is a sad image of my sister, but she is alive," Astrid Betancourt told AFP in Paris.
The mother of US hostage Keith Stansell also expressed renewed hope after the footage was released.
"I think that maybe with this proof of life there will be some increased international efforts to go ahead with the humanitarian exchange," Lynne Stansell told AFP.
The Colombian government said the five videos appear to have been taped in October.
The footage provided the first images in years of Betancourt, a former senator, and 15 other hostages, including Stansell and fellow US Defense Department contractors Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes.
Relatives who were shown the videos in Bogota expressed both joy and sadness at seing their loved ones alive, but captive.
"Every night I pray for him and ask God to protect him and bring him back soon," said Yessica Romero, 10, who was barely one-year-old when her father, an army sergeant, was captured.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe claimed there were indications the insurgents tortured Betancourt, who was captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while running for the presidency in 2002.
But Betancourt's sister Ingrid insisted there was nothing to back up the claim, which she said endangered efforts to have the hostages released.
Betancourt's ex-husband Fabrice Delloye expressed concern over the ex-senator's condition. "She is extremely thin and extremely tired. It shows there is a real emergency to get her out of there," he said.
The three Americans appeared in better health than Betancourt, who looked depressed and apparently had one hand tied down. The Americans were kidnapped in February 2003 after rebels shot down their plane during an anti-drug surveillance mission.
Lynne Stansell said her son "looks as good, or maybe even better than you would anticipate after five years almost." But she added that her son lost a lot of weight.
Four of the videos bear October dates, but the one showing the Americans is dated January 1, which government officials say appears to have been an error as one of the 11 hostages seen on that tape says: "Today is October 23."
Authorities said the tapes, seized from three insurgents detained by the armed forces, included messages to the hostages' families. But they only released footage without sound.
The Colombian military also seized pictures of the hostages and letters written by them.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a close interest in the case of Betancourt, said France would "redouble efforts to obtain her freedom."
"I have always said we will never forget Ingrid Betancourt. We know she is alive. Now we have to fight with all our might to free her from her ordeal," he said.
The 16 seen on the tapes are among about 45 hostages the rebels want to swap for 500 FARC prisoners. Uribe has rejected guerrilla demands that he create a demilitarized zone for negotiations.
Prospects for an exchange dimmed last week after Uribe ended mediation efforts by Hugo Chavez, accusing the Venezuelan president of siding with the FARC.
Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who had worked alongside Chavez as a mediator, said the footage and the letters were meant to be given to the Venezuelan president, who said earlier the insurgents had promised to supply proof the hostages are alive.
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