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.
“This was a Colombian-planned and -executed operation,” said the military official. “It was based largely on intelligence they had developed.”
But another military official acknowledged that the United States had been told of the rescue plan in advance, which allowed U.S. officials to provide a transport plane and a team of medical personnel.
“They had given us enough heads-up so we could have the aircraft standing by in the event they went ahead with the mission and it was successful,” said the officer. “We were aware enough of the planning to be ready to respond with the aircraft and the medical team.”
At a news conference earlier Wednesday at which the rescue was announced, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the FARC top command, the seven-member secretariat, had been “penetrated.” Colombian military operations in the area, which was near the scene of the FARC’s release of six hostages early this year, also led to intelligence that helped in Wednesday’s operation.
The rescue brought expressions of joy from the hostages’ families and from Colombians on the street who have endured decades of bloody and seemingly endless civil war.
“The joy of the families is shared by the entire country and by the world that looks on in shock at this crime that continues to be committed in our country,” said Olga Gomez, leader of Pais Libre, a group that represents the families of kidnapping victims
Pope Benedict XVI was among the several world leaders, including Sarkozy and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who congratulated the families and the Colombian government for the rescue. Most called on the FARC to negotiate a peace accord.
Uribe called President Bush to inform him of the rescue.
“We commend the government of Colombia for its sustained efforts to secure the safe return of all FARC hostages,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with those still held by the FARC and their loved ones.”
The captivity of Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship, had become a cause celebre in France since the election of President Sarkozy last year, who made her release a priority.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped secure the release of six high-profile hostages in January and February, although his role as mediator ended in acrimony.
Early last month, Chavez called on the FARC to release all hostages and negotiate for peace.
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes, Josh Meyer and Paul Richter in Washington, Geraldine Baum in Paris, and Andres D’Allesandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.