BOGOTAŚColombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. hostages held for years by guerrillas were rescued on Wednesday after soldiers posing as aid workers duped their captors into putting them on a helicopter.
The stunning rescueŚwithout a shot being firedŚwas a huge blow to Latin America's oldest insurgency, already badly weakened by President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the rebels and the cocaine trade fueling the conflict.
Betancourt, 46, a dual French-Colombian citizen and former presidential candidate was the highest-profile captive held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and had been a held in the Colombian jungle for six years.
"I believe that this is a sign of peace for Colombia, that we can find peace," Betancourt said, thanking the Colombian military for her rescue and weeping as she made her first public comments, carried on Colombian radio station Caracol.
Minutes later a pale but smiling Betancourt landed at Bogota's air force base, walking down the stairs of the plane and hugging her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, on the runway.
Betancourt had not been seen since a rebel video broadcast last year in which she appeared gaunt and depressed in a jungle camp. The video provoked outrage in Colombia and overseas as former fellow hostages later told how she had been chained up after repeated escape attempts.
She said the hostages were forced onto a helicopter handcuffed, but were then amazed to see their captors disarmed as the aircraft took off, describing an action film ending to her captivity when one army officer said: "You are free."
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said all of the freed hostages were in reasonably good health despite having been held in harsh conditions and suffering jungle illnesses.
Santos said Colombian military intelligence had infiltrated the guerrilla movement in the southern jungle province of Guaviare, where soldiers posed as members of a fictitious non-governmental organization that supposedly would fly the hostages by helicopter to a camp to meet a rebel commander.
"It was an intelligence operation comparable with the greatest epics of human history, but without a drop of blood being spilled, without one weapon being fired," Uribe said.
Fifteen long-held kidnap victims were rescued in all, including Betancourt and the three Americans. Two guerrillas were captured in the operation, officials said.
The FARC has been holding about 40 high-profile hostages it has sought to exchange for jailed rebels. But attempts to reach negotiations over their release were stalled as Uribe's government and the FARC
Americans Headed Home
The freed Americans all worked for Northrop Grumman and were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungles while on a counternarcotics operation.
The three former Defense Department contract workers, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, were on their way back to the United States on Wednesday evening, the Colombian government said.
U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by telephone with Uribe and praised the rescue operation.
"President Bush congratulated President Uribe, telling him he is a 'strong leader.' President Uribe thanked President Bush for his support and confidence in the Government of Colombia," Gordon Johndroe, White House National Security Council spokesman, said in Washington.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "Today a nightmare of more than six years has ended." Sarkozy, who had had made vigorous efforts to seek Betancourt's freedom, dispatched his Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, to Colombia.
"I am filled with happiness," Betancourt's sister, Astrid, told Colombian radio. "These have been long years of waiting."
Betancourt was kidnapped by the FARC while campaigning for the presidency in 2002 when, against the advice of the armed forces, she traveled along a rural road in southern Colombia and was stopped at a rebel roadblock.
The presidents of Chile, Brazil and Peru praised Uribe for the rescue operation as a gain for peace and democracy.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary who has been at odds with Uribe over his support for the rebels, called the Colombian leader to congratulate him on the successful operation, Venezuelan state television said.
Chavez this year brokered the release of a group of hostages held by the FARC. But a Colombian army mission to kill a top FARC commander inside Ecuador triggered an Andean crisis that threatened to spill over into border violence.
Chavez, who had once called for more political recognition for the Marxist-inspired FARC, last month urged rebel commanders to release their hostages without conditions.
Conditions for Talks
The FARC has demanded that Uribe pull back troops from an area the size of New York City to facilitate talks.
Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping years ago, refuses to accept that condition. But he has offered a smaller safe haven under international observation in an area where there are no armed forces or armed groups.
The rescue of high-profile hostages weakens the FARC's position to negotiate as their ranks are thinned by military setbacks and desertions. But they still hold scores more hostages for political leverage and extortion.
The outlawed rebel army, once a 17,000-member force able to attack cities and kidnap almost at will, has been driven back into remote areas and now has about 9,000 combatants. The guerrillas have lost three major leaders this year.
Listed as a terrorist group by U.S. and European officials, the FARC has used the cocaine trade to fund its operations.
In announcing the rescue operation, Santos called on the guerrillas to give up their arms and negotiate a truce.
Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said the rescue showed that the FARC was in a serious organizational crisis.
"The Colombian government took advantage of the FARC's weakness and disarray to carry out the mission. It was a big gamble, but it worked," he said.
"Uribe is a risk-taker and is full of surprises. Not that he needs it, but this remarkable turn of events will further boost his popularity."