Betancourt refuses to hate her captors

Ingrid Betancourt, the famed hostage of Colombia's largest guerrilla group, lived the last six years chained to trees in the jungle. She nearly died from tropical diseases that left her despondent and emaciated.

Yet, since her spectacular release last Wednesday, Betancourt has emerged preaching not hate and bitterness, but peace and national reconciliation.

“The first thing we have to do is change hearts,” Betancourt told McClatchy Newspapers in an exclusive interview. “We have to change the vocabulary of hate. When I dreamed of being free, I told myself that I could not engage in hate or rancor.”

Her selfless commentary has helped catapult her into the front-runner position to be Colombia's next president. The election will be in 2010.

Betancourt, however, wasn't interested in discussing politics or her ambitions during a 10-minute telephone conversation late Sunday while in Paris.

Mostly she wanted to discuss Colombia, which for 60 years has suffered from murders and kidnappings – mostly from struggles over power and the country's cocaine business – which have made it the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Betancourt said she supported President Alvaro Uribe's efforts to keep military pressure on the guerrillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials.

But with FARC decimated and on its heels – especially after the guerrillas lost 15 hostages in last week's rescue, including prized captives Betancourt and three American military contractors – Betancourt said that Uribe should redouble efforts to seek a peaceful conclusion to what has been a 44-year war with the group.

“The guerrillas are our enemy,” Betancourt said in the interview. “But we shouldn't insult them. We should show them how to seek a dignified exit through peaceful negotiations. If we don't defeat them correctly, we will sow the seeds of hate for the future.”

She had been planning to return to Colombia to participate in a massive anti-FARC rally July 20, but her family persuaded her not to because of the danger.

Friends have advised her to rest, catch up with her family and hold off on worrying about her political future.