French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt (R) hugs her mother Yolanda Pulecio after her arrival at Catam military airport in Bogota July 2, 2008. (Photo: Carlos Duran / Reuters)
The Colombian military today rescued 15 hostages from a leftist guerrilla group, including three American defense contractors and former Colombia presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Betancourt, the three Americans and 11 members of the Colombian army and police were later flown to an air base near the capital, Bogota. The Americans -- Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes -- were expected to arrive tonight at a U.S. military base in Texas.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a news conference in Bogota that all the rescued hostages are in reasonably good health after being held for years in jungle camps by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
"I imagined this moment very often," Betancourt said on the airport tarmac after landing with the other freed hostages in a Colombian military plane. "Mom, you don't have to cry anymore."
Wearing a camouflage hat and vest and looking ebullient, Betancourt was greeted by her mother, who hugged and kissed her repeatedly.
She described the rescue operation as "perfect."
The three Americans held with her were apparently whisked away after the plane landed and did not address the news media. They were conducting an aerial surveillance mission as part of an antidrug program when their plane crashed in FARC-held jungle territory in February 2003. Last year, videos captured by the Colombian military from suspected rebels showed the three haggard men standing in a clearing in what appeared to be a clandestine jungle camp.
Betancourt, 46, a writer with dual French and Colombian citizenship, was seized by the FARC in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency in rebel territory. Captured with her was her aide, Clara Rojas, who was released along with another woman in January in a deal brokered by neighboring Venezuela.
Betancourt was last seen in a rebel video in late 2007 looking gaunt and dispirited. The release of Rojas raised hopes that Betancourt also would soon be freed, but those hopes were dashed amid increasing recriminations between the Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. According to the Colombian government, captured computer records showed that Chavez had secretly aided the FARC.
Santos said no one was injured in today's rescue operation in the jungle province of Guaviare in southern Colombia.
"Fifteen hostages were rescued without firing a single shot," he said in a statement.
Santos said the rescue, dubbed Operation Jaque and carried out by Colombian military intelligence, began with the infiltration of a FARC squad commanded by guerrilla known as Cesar. The squad has controlled a group of hostages in recent years, he said. Jaque is a Spanish chess term meaning "check."
In a ruse in which Cesar was told the hostages were to be flown to a meeting with the FARC commander known as Alfonso Cano, the hostages were brought together and put on board one of two helicopters supposedly operated by a humanitarian organization, Santos said. In fact, the organization was fictitious, and the helicopters -- painted white -- belonged to the Colombian army, he said.
While the hostages were flown to freedom, Cesar and another member of his squad who were to accompany them to the meeting were "neutralized in the helicopter" and will be brought to justice, the defense minister said.
As for about 15 other members of Cesar's squad, as well as other FARC guerrillas a few kilometers away, "we decided not to attack them" in hopes that the rebel group will reciprocate by releasing the rest of its hostages, Santos said.
"This was an unprecedented operation that will go down in history for its audaciousness and effectiveness," Santos told reporters.
Betancourt said the hostages were excited, curious and somewhat apprehensive when told they were being moved to another location.
"I wondered if they were going to put us as clowns in another circus," she said on the airport tarmac. "I did not want to lend myself to that."
She said she thought the men who arrived on the helicopters were members of the FARC. She and the other hostages felt angry and humiliated when they were bound hand and foot after being put on board, she said.
After their helicopter took off, "suddenly, something happened," she said, and she saw the guerrilla commander being held on the floor, stripped and blindfolded.
"The chief of the operation said, 'We are the national army, and you are all free!'" Betancourt said. "The helicopter almost fell" from the sky. "We started jumping. We screamed. We cried. We couldn't believe it."
The U.S. State Department said the United States played no role in the rescue.
"This was a Colombia planned, led and executed operation," said Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.
U.S. Defense officials said Colombia provided advance warning of the operation so that the U.S. government would be prepared to provide medical support and air transportation for the hostages in the event of their successful rescue.
The freed Americans were scheduled to return to the United States on an Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet. Officials said they were expected to arrive tonight at Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Tex. There, the three Americans will go through a repatriation and reintegration process of unspecified length, largely to ensure their good health and a safe reunion with their families, officials said.
According to Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, President Bush spoke with Uribe this afternoon and congratulated him on the release of the hostages, telling him he is a "strong leader." Johndroe said Uribe thanked Bush for his support and confidence in the Colombian government.
Lynne Stansell, the mother of freed hostage Keith Stansell, said this afternoon from her home in southwestern Florida that the family is overwhelmed as it tries to make sense of the news and confirm details of her son's release.
"Some people are coming to help us handle this," she said. "We can't really react right now. It's just all too emotional."
In Connecticut, George Gonsalves was mowing his lawn this afternoon when a neighbor rushed over to tell him about reports that his son Marc had been rescued after six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle.
"She was just as excited as me," George Gonsalves said. "We went dashing back to the house, and there it was on CNN." He said he did not know when he would be reunited with his son. For now, he is just beaming at the prospect.
"It's just wonderful," he said. "Just wonderful." He said the family has been numbed by Marc's kidnapping and was particularly worried recently as a new FARC commander seemed to break off communications about the hostages' possible release.
"There's not really been a good time since . . ." he said, his voice trailing off. "Well, it's not been good. But this -- this is really exciting news."
In an apparent coincidence, the rescue operation came shortly after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP candidate for president in the November elections, concluded a visit to Colombia. He met with Uribe last night and said he received assurances that every effort was being made to secure the release of the American hostages.
In a subsequent statement, McCain said he had been briefed by Uribe and the Colombian defense minister last night about today's operation. He said he spoke with Uribe today by telephone and learned some of the details of the rescue.
"I'm pleased with the success of this very high-risk operation," McCain said. "Now we must renew our efforts to free all of the other innocent people held hostage."
The FARC, which has waged a guerrilla war against the Colombia government for four decades, has been losing strength in recent months, with fighters deserting in droves. It has lost three of its top seven commanders since March, and Colombian forces have captured a number of sensitive documents and computer records.
The group began its campaign in the 1960s as a Marxist rebellion, but it later became heavily involved in cocaine production, drug trafficking and kidnapping. The United States, the European Union and Colombia have labeled the group a terrorist organization.
The 15 freed hostages were among about 40 high-profile captives held by FARC in hopes of exchanging them for jailed rebels. In all, the group was estimated to be holding more than 700 hostages.
Staff writers Josh White, Glenn Kessler, Carol D. Leonnig and Michael Shear in Washington contributed to this report.