Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Colombia Hostage Betancourt Freed

French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by rebels in Colombia have been rescued by government troops.

Ms Betancourt had been held for more than six years by the rebel Farc group and was their highest-profile captive.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made her rescue a priority, said he was very happy. Her children, who spoke of their joy, are to fly to meet her.

The Farc has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government for 40 years.


Wearing military fatigues, a pale Ms Betancourt smiled as she emerged with other hostages from a military plane in the Colombian capital Bogota to be greeted by her mother and husband.

"God, this is a miracle... There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation," she told media at the air base.

Breaking into tears, she appealed to Farc to free the other hostages and make peace.

Mr Sarkozy, who was joined by Ms Betancourt's family at the Elysee Palace in Paris, said: "A nightmare of more than six years has ended."

Ms Betancourt's son, Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt, told the news conference it was "the best moment of my life". His sister Melanie said it was like "emerging from a bad dream".

The siblings are being flown to Colombia to be reunited with their 46-year-old mother.

Government 'success'

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said no-one had been hurt in Wednesday's operation in the southern province of Guaviare and that the 15 hostages were in relatively good health.

Mr Santos said some 15 hostages had been rescued in total, among them 11 members of the Colombian security forces who had been captured in various rebel attacks.

Born on 25 December 1961
Grows up in Paris
1989: Returns to Colombia
1994: Elected to lower house
1998: Becomes a senator
2002: Kidnapped by Farc rebels

Profile: Ingrid Betancourt
In pictures: Hostages freed
World reaction

He said the Farc rebels had been tricked into handing over the hostages by soldiers posing as members of a fictitious non-government organisation that supposedly would fly the hostages to a camp to meet rebel leader Alfonso Cano.

"The helicopters, which in reality were from the army, picked up the hostages in Guaviare and flew them to freedom," Mr Santos said.

The three Americans rescued were defence department contract workers captured after their light aircraft crashed in the Colombian jungle in 2003, the Colombian military said.

Mr Santos said the trio - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - had been flown home to the US to be reunited with their families.

World leaders welcomed the news and celebrations erupted on the streets of Colombian cities as crowds hailed the jungle rescue in a country plagued for decades by kidnappings.

The BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Medellin says the successful operation by Colombian security forces is a political and military coup for the country's government.

As such, it will relieve the pressure on President Alvaro Uribe to negotiate with the Farc - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - allowing him to continue with his US-backed military offensive against the group, our correspondent says.

The Farc had hoped to exchange some 60 political hostages for hundreds of rebels held by the Colombian government, he says, but with Ms Betancourt's rescue they have lost a powerful negotiating tool.

The news is yet another blow to the once-mighty Farc, our correspondent adds, following the death of its legendary leader Manuel Marulanda in March, along with two other members of the guerrilla group's seven-man ruling body.

The Farc still holds more than 40 hostages.

Public sympathy

Video pictures released last November had shown Ms Betancourt her looking gaunt and frail.

Accounts from freed hostages that she was in danger of dying all heightened the sense of urgency surrounding her fate, our correspondent adds.

Ms Betancourt has dual citizenship as the result of marriage to a French diplomat - since dissolved - which produced two children, who worked hard to keep her captivity in the spotlight.

The Spanish government is "hugely satisfied" with the news of her rescue and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has sent messages of congratulations to Mr Uribe and to the Betancourt family, a spokesman said.

A spokesman for US President George W Bush said he had congratulated Mr Uribe, telling him he was a "strong leader".

The Vatican has also welcomed the release of Ms Betancourt and the other hostages.

Mr Kouchner travelled to Latin America earlier this year to build ties with regional leaders who have been influential in securing hostage releases from Farc in the past.

The politician was kidnapped in February 2002 while campaigning in territory controlled by the Farc. She was believed to suffer from serious liver problems.

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