France's president dramatically declared himself ready Thursday to go personally to Colombia to try to secure the release of ailing hostage Ingrid Betancourt, who is being held by rebels there.
Nicolas Sarkozy said Betancourt's release was a matter "of life or death." He urged the leftist FARC guerrillas to free her without delay. Two hostages released Wednesday by the FARC said Betancourt is very ill and being badly mistreated by her captors.
Sarkozy described those new accounts as "excruciating in their cruelty and barbarism that make one feel sick."
"The FARC must know and understand that the martyrdom of Ingrid Betancourt is the martyrdrom of France," he said.
Betancourt has duel French-Colombian nationality. The former Colombian presidential candidate has been held hostage for six years, becoming a cause celebre in France.
The French leader, who was speaking on a visit to South Africa, said he is prepared to travel himself to the Colombia-Venezuela border to pick up Betancourt if the FARC _ the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia _ make that a condition of her release.
"They cannot let this woman die," Sarkozy said. "It is a race against the clock. ... We can wait no longer."
Colombian former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez, one of four hostages released Wednesday by the FARC and flown to Venezuela, said Betancourt was "physically and morally exhausted" by her jungle captivity.
"She is chained up ... surrounded by people who have not made her life pleasant at all," he said.
Another freed hostage, Gloria Polanco, said Betancourt has Hepatitis B and "is near the end."
Sarkozy said he spoke by phone to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and planned to also speak Thursday with his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe.
The FARC has proposed trading about 40 captives _ including Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors _ for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas. The FARC have an ideological affinity with Chavez and have turned to him as their preferred facilitator.
Sarkozy urged the FARC not to wait for a hostage deal and to release Betancourt as a "humanitarian gesture."
Betancourt's daughter, Melanie Delloye, said Thursday she fears that her mother's days are numbered.
"Time is really of the essence for us," she told RTL radio. "Mom is alive, but I don't know for how long, and I know we have to get her out of there as soon as possible."