French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, right, hugs her mother,… (Rodrigo Arangua / AFP/Getty…)
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Armed forces disguised as rebels Wednesday rescued former Colombia presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. defense contractors and 11 other hostages held by leftist insurgents, in a daring operation that delivered the latest in a series of blows to the country's largest anti-government force.
The 46-year-old Betancourt, who was held for more than six years, called the rescue operation impeccable and told reporters that she planned to run for the presidency again.
Colombian forces apparently infiltrated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and duped them into grouping Betancourt and the other hostages in a remote jungle location about 200 miles southeast of Bogota and putting them aboard a helicopter, supposedly for a meeting with new FARC commander Alfonso Cano.
But the trip was a carefully orchestrated ruse, and as the helicopter took off with the hostages and two FARC guards from a jungle clearing about 45 miles southeast of the town of San Jose del Guaviare, commandos subdued the rebels without firing a shot.
The helicopter in fact belonged to the Colombian army, and the crew was a special services unit.
"We got on the helicopter and then suddenly something happened," Betancourt recounted at a news conference at a Bogota army base. "And I saw this cruel [FARC] commander who had acted so terribly to me now was on the floor blindfolded.
"Then we heard a voice telling us, "You have been liberated."
The hostages were flown to Colombia's largest air base, near Melgar, then on to Bogota, where they were met late Wednesday afternoon by their families and dignitaries.
The three American hostages, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, did not appear in Bogota with the other 12 freed captives. Officials said the three had been flown to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they arrived late Wednesday.
Betancourt appeared to be in reasonably good health, as did the other hostages.
"The operation was impeccable. It was perfect," said Betancourt, who was kidnapped while campaigning for president in February 2002.
At the Bogota air base, Betancourt was reunited with her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio.
Her two children, from her previous marriage, were in France and appeared at a midnight news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"It's the moment we so hoped for," said her daughter, Melanie Delloye-Betancourt. "We can't wait to hold her in our arms. I really want to thank the French president because ever since he got in charge, things became possible."
The rescue ended an excruciating ordeal for the hostages, including the U.S. defense contractors, who worked for Northrop Grumman Corp.
They were taken prisoner along with another colleague in February 2003 after their single-engine plane crash landed in Caqueta province while on drug surveillance. The FARC killed the fourth American, Thomas Janis, and a Colombian soldier shortly after the crash.
The operation was the latest in a series of blows to the FARC that demonstrates what many analysts say is the group's weakened state. But the rebels are believed to still hold 700 hostages.
Since his election in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe has kept the FARC on the defensive, regaining much of the territory the rebels once controlled.
FARC ranks are believed to have shrunk from 20,000 a decade ago to as few as 8,000, partly because of incentives offered to get rebel fighters to desert. Over the last year, several leaders have been killed captured or have surrendered.
Morale within the group suffered recently when FARC founder and leader Pedro Antonio Marin, also known as Manuel Marulanda, died March 26, apparently of natural causes, weeks after his second in command, Raul Reyes, was killed during a daring commando raid across the Ecuadorean border that prompted a regional crisis.
A top level field commander, Nelly Avila Moreno, known by the alias Karina, who once controlled FARC drug trafficking in several central states, said after her surrender in May that the FARC was "crumbling" and that she had been out of touch with the command for two years.
Colombian armed forces using U.S. intelligence technology are thought to have cracked the rebels' communications system and tracked their movements by monitoring cellphone and satellite phone usage.
Those compromised communications may have enabled the Colombian forces to spin the ruse that led to the rescue. Details were not disclosed Wednesday on how FARC commander "Cesar" was fooled into bringing together the 15 hostages from three locations.
U.S. military spokespersons, wanting to emphasize the independence of the Colombian military in planning the operation, declined to comment on the rescue. One said U.S. involvement in the hostage rescue was limited to providing a medical team to care for the freed captives and a transport plane.