Bogota: Ingrid Betancourt woke up, as always, at 4am, for another numbing day in her seventh year of rebel captivity deep in Colombia’s jungle.
The former presidential candidate listened to news of her mother and daughter over the radio then was told to pack by her guerrilla captors—helicopters were coming.
The sound always filled her with dread, but this time she and 14 other hostages—including three US military contractors held since 2003—were airlifted to freedom in an audaciously “perfect” operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over their prize hostages without firing a shot.
The stunning caper involved months of intelligence gathering, dozens of helicopters on standby and a strong dose of deceit: The rebels shoved the captives, their hands bound, onto a white unmarked MI-17 helicopter, believing they were being transferred to another guerrilla camp.
Looking at helicopter’s crew, some wearing Che Guevara shirts, Betancourt reasoned they weren’t aid workers, as she’d expected—but rebels.
This was just another indignity—the helicopter “had no flag, no insignia.” Angry and upset, she refused a coat they offered as they told her she was going to a colder climate.
But not long after the group was airborne, Betancourt turned around and saw the local commander, alias Cesar, a man who had tormented her for four years, blindfolded and stripped naked on the floor.
Then came the unbelievable words.
“We’re the national army,” said one of the crewman. “You’re free.”
The helicopter crew were soldiers in disguise. Cesar and the other guerrilla aboard had been persuaded to hand over their pistols, then overpowered.
Not a single shot was fired in Wednesday’s rescue mission, which snatched from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the four foreigners who were its greatest bargaining chips.
“The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another,” Betancourt later said.
The operation, which also freed 11 Colombian soldiers and police, “will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness,” Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
It was the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old FARC, which is already reeling from the recent deaths of key commanders and thousands of defections after withering pressure from Colombia’s US-trained and advised armed forces.
Military intelligence agents had infiltrated the FARC’s top ranks—not one but many—in an operation that began last year and developed slowly and with meticulous care, Colombia’s top generals said.
Many relatives of hostages have opposed rescue attempts, mindful of a botched 2003 operation in which rebels killed 10 hostages including a former defence minister when they heard helicopters approach.
This time, there were no such mistakes.
Through orders the hostages’ handlers believed came from top rebels, they had maneuvered three separate groups of hostages to a rallying point in eastern Colombia’s wilds for Wednesday’s helicopter pickup.
“The helicopter was on the ground for 22 minutes,” said army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, “the longest minutes of my life.”
The agents had led Cesar, the local commander overseeing the hostages, to believe he was taking them to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas’ supreme leader to discuss a possible hostage swap.
A French and Swiss envoy were reported in the country seeking a meeting with Cano so the operation’s timing was perfect.
“God, this is a miracle,” Betancourt said after the freed Colombians landed in Bogota a few hours later. “It was an extraordinary symphony in which everything went perfectly.”
She appeared thin but surprisingly healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace.
A flight carrying the Americans—Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell—landed in Texas late Wednesday after being flown there directly. They were to reunite with their families and undergo tests and treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
President Alvaro Uribe, in a celebratory news conference flanked by the freed Colombian hostages, said he isn’t interested in “spilling blood” that he wants the FARC to know he seeks “a path to peace, total peace.”
Although only Colombians were directly involved in the rescue, US Ambassador William Brownfield said “close” American cooperation included intelligence, equipment as well as “training advice.” He refused to offer details.
The two rebels overpowered will face justice, officials said. But the 58 others left behind on the ground were allowed to escape as a goodwill gesture, said Gen. Freddy Padilla, the armed forces commander.
“If I had given the order to fire on them they would almost certainly all have been killed,” he said. Another 39 helicopters had been standing by, prepared to encircle the rebels and hostages if the rescue failed, Santos said.
Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002. The Americans were captured a year later when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. Some of the others had been held for a dozen years.
The French-Colombian Betancourt wore a floppy camouflage hat as she arrived in Bogota and hugged her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, and her husband, Juan Carlos LeCompte. Her two children and sister, Astrid, were expected to arrive early Thursday from France, where they live with her ex-husband.
Betancourt said she would then travel to France and meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt’s liberation a priority of state.
“I want to tell President Sarkozy—and through him all the French people—that they were our support, our light,” Betancourt told the Colombian television station RCN.
Betancourt, a dual French national who grew up in Paris, had become a cause celebre across Europe, where scores of cities had adopted her.
Betancourt broke into tears several times—first on arrival and later at Uribe’s side during the news conference.
“They used the pain of our families to pressure the entire world,” she said, and appealed to the FARC to release its remaining hostages—about 700 by government count—and make peace.
“The people who stayed behind there, I forgive them,” Betancourt said of her rebel captors. “Nobody is at fault.”
She thanked Uribe, against whom she was running when she was kidnapped, and said he “has been a very good president.”
However, she said, “I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president.”
Before leaving Paris, her son Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt called her release “the most beautiful news of my life.”
Brownfield said the Americans were healthy and “very, very happy” but two suffered from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and were “looking forward to modern medical treatment.”
Congratulations swarmed in for Uribe and his military from around the world.
Many Colombians believe the end is near for the FARC, whose ranks are filled with poor peasants resentful of government neglect but who are widely despised for their ransom and political kidnappings and reliance on cocaine trafficking.
FARC battlefield losses and widespread desertions have cut rebel numbers in half to about 9,000 as the United States has poured billions of dollars in military aid into Colombia in support of Uribe.
In March, co-founder leader Manuel Marulanda died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed, one by a turncoat bodyguard.
Padilla said the FARC informants who had made the hostages’ release possible would be rewarded not with cash but with “liberty.”
“They did it so that they and their families can have a better life.”
—Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia, Ian James and Mauricio Diaz contributed to this report.