Betancourt, three Americans rescued from FARC
3 July 2008
BOGOTA – French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three US nationals were Wednesday rescued along with other hostages from Marxist FARC rebels in a daring jungle operation, Colombian officials said.
Betancourt, who was seized in 2002, and the three Americans held since 2003, were plucked from their captors along with 11 Colombian soldiers in a helicopter-backed military operation, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
"Fifteen hostages held by the FARC have been rescued unharmed. Among the hostages was Ingrid Betancourt, three US citizens and 11 members of our armed forces," Santos told a press conference.
World leaders were swift to welcome the news, and celebrations broke out on the streets of major Colombian cities as residents hailed the rescue in a country plagued for decades by kidnappings.
There had been mounting fears for Betancourt’s health following the release of a video showing her looking thin and frail, and her son Lorenzo Delloye said he was overjoyed to hear his 46-year-old mother was free.
"It is an immense joy, an indescribable joy, I still cannot believe it," Delloye told AFP.
American hostages Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were also freed in the operation, some 70 kilometres from the city of San Jose del Guaviare.
Santos said the rescue operation came after Colombian forces infiltrated the leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"We will continue working on the release of other hostages," he added at the defence ministry news conference.
Betancourt, a dual national, became the international face of Colombia’s tragic hostage crisis after she was seized in February 2002 during her long-shot bid for the presidency.
Her plight gained new urgency in February when a former hostage warned that Betancourt was very sick and morally spent, prompting tearful appeals for her release from her two children and her mother.
US President George W. Bush congratulated Bogota on the releases and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to make a statement late Wednesday about the release, his office said.
"President Bush congratulated President Uribe, telling him he is a ‘strong leader,’" after the military operation, said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The Vatican also hailed Betancourt’s release as "a positive sign" that pointed towards "reconciliation" for Colombia, a spokesman told AFP.
The news of the rescue triggered street celebrations as in Bogota thousands of cars, with their horns blaring, packed the roads in a huge traffic jam.
Hundreds of people flooded onto the streets brandishing the national flag and shouting "Free, free, free".
"We are all free," read a huge sign posted on a building in Cali, 500 kilometres southeast of Bogota, while there were similar scenes in the northwestern city of Medellin.
Betancourt was the most well-known of about 700 people believed to have been taken captive by the FARC, a four-decade-old insurgency which figures on US and European Union lists of terrorist organisations.
Hopes for her imminent release were raised and then dashed when her former campaign manager Clara Rojas was freed by the rebels in January in a deal brokered with the help of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The three US civilians were working in Colombia as contractors for the US Defence Department and were on an anti-drug trafficking mission when their plane crashed in the jungle in the Caqueta region, a large area of coca production under rebel control.
In November, the last proof of life for the three men showed them to be in relatively good health and faring better than Betancourt.
A reward of USD 340,000 and a US visa had been offered for any information leading to their release. Washington then even pledged USD 5 million to anyone helping arrest those holding them. But in vain.
Since then Washington had kept a low-profile in the case, and there had been no international campaign to free the three, as France had organised for Betancourt.
[AFP / Expatica]