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Colombia: Betancourt, US hostages freed
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's military says it has rescued 15 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors, from leftist rebels.
Colombia Rescues Three American Hostages
BOGOTA (Reuters) - French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans were rescued from leftist guerrillas by Colombian troops, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said on Wednesday.
Santos said all of the former hostages were in reasonably good health after being held for years in secret jungle camps.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, has been holding about 40 high-profile hostages it has sought to exchange for jailed rebels.
Ingrid Betancourt was savouring freedom last night after Colombia's security forces rescued her and 14 other hostages from a guerrilla camp deep in the jungle.
The French-Colombian politician's six-year ordeal as a bargaining chip ended in a military operation yesterday which dealt a devastating blow to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
Military spies tricked the Marxist rebels into handing over their most valuable captives to disguised military helicopters without a shot being fired, said the government. Betancourt, called her rescue "absolutely impeccable" and said she and 14 other hostages had no idea they were being rescued until they were airborne. "They got us out grandly," she told Colombian army radio.
Her voice trembled with emotion last night as she related to Colombian radio her last moments of captivity.
She said the hostages who were being marched toward the helicopter thought they were part of an international hostage deal but when they saw the pilots dressed like guerrillas their hopes were dashed.
"They tied our hands and feet," Betancourt said. "It wasn't until the hostages were aboard the helicopter and that the pilots subdued the rebel commanders that they realised they had indeed found freedom. "We are with the army, you are free," the pilots told the hostages, Betancourt recalled.
The elaborate sting would "go into history for its audacity and effectiveness", said Juan Manuel Santos, the defence minister.
Relatives expressed surprise and joy...#65279; that the gaunt woman glimpsed in harrowing videos was on her way back to them. "If true, (it is) the most beautiful news of my life," said her teenage son, Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt.
Betancourt was being taken last night to the Tolemaida military base where government officials were due to greet them, along with three US military contractors and 11 Colombian former captives.
Analysts said the breakthrough could signal the demise of Farc. "For the Farc this is a mortal blow. They will never be able to recover from this," said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá.
George Bush phoned Colombia's president Álvaro Uribe, an ally whose security forces are funded by Washington, to congratulate him. Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt's liberty a priority, also spoke to Uribe.
The day's emotion was heightened by the dramatic circumstances of the operation. At a press conference in Bogotá Santos drew gasps and then applause when he announced that Betancourt was among 15 hostages freed in Guaviare province, in the south-west.
Santos said intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrillas' seven-man ruling secretariat and led the commander in charge of the hostages, Cesar, to think they were to be taken by helicopter to Alfonso Cano, Farc's supreme leader.
The hostages, who had been divided in three groups, were taken to a rallying point where two helicopters piloted by Colombian agents were waiting. The helicopters took off with the hostages, Cesar and one other rebel, and those two "were neutralised" during the flight, Santos said.
Betancourt, 46, an outspoken politician, was abducted in February 2002 as she was running for president. As her captivity lengthened she became an international symbol for the plight of all the hostages. Images of her face adorned vigils and marches around the world.
As punishment for repeated escape attempts she was tied and chained up and became sick. The last images of her in captivity showed a frail, despondent woman with lank hair and a blank gaze.
"In all these years, I thought that as long as I was alive, as long as I continued to breathe, I must continue to hope," she wrote in a letter released at the end of 2007. "I don't have the strength I used to have."
Last night Clara Rojas, a political ally who was kidnapped along with Betancourt and freed in January, called the rescue "a blessing from God. I think that meeting again with her children is going to be fundamental for her."
The three American captives, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, were US defence department contract workers who fell into rebel hands in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungle during a counternarcotics operation.