Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 09:04 UK

Colombia hostage Betancourt freed

Ingrid Betancourt's joy at freedom

French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages have been freed after rebels holding them were tricked into handing them over.

Colombian soldiers - apparently posing as members of a non-government organisation - flew them to freedom in a helicopter.

Ms Betancourt said: "This is a miracle. There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation."

Ms Betancourt was held by the left-wing Farc rebels for more than six years.

When the head of the operation to free the hostages told them they were free, "the helicopter almost fell from the sky because we all jumped, shouted, cried and embraced," Ms Betancourt said.

"We couldn't believe it," she added.

Political aspiration

The Farc has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government for 40 years, and Ms Betancourt was their highest profile captive.

Also released were three Americans and 11 members of the Colombian security forces, all said to be in relatively good health.

President Alvaro Uribe congratulated the army on the operation, in which no shots were fired, and urged Farc to release its remaining hostages and seek peace.

Ingrid Betancourt after her release 2 July 2008
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

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.

She appealed to Farc to free the other hostages and make peace.

She thanked Mr Uribe, against whom she was running as a presidential candidate when she was kidnapped, and said he "has been a very good president".

"I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president," she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made the rescue of Ms Betancourt a foreign policy priority, was joined by her family at his residence, the Elysee Palace in Paris.

The freed hostage'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 flying to Colombia to be reunited with their 46-year-old mother.

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

Accounts from freed hostages that she was in danger of dying had heightened the sense of urgency surrounding her fate.

Naked and blindfolded

Also released were three US defence department contract workers who were captured after their light aircraft crashed in the Colombian jungle in 2003.

The trio - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - have now arrived back in San Antonio, Texas, where they will undergo medical tests and be reunited with their families.

Ingrid Betancourt's son on his joy at her release

The 11 members of the Colombian security forces who were released had been captured in various rebel attacks.

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos 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 captives 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," he said.

Intelligence agents had infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and duped the local commander in charge of the hostages, alias Cesar, the defence minister said.

Cesar and another rebel who boarded the helicopter had been quickly overpowered and would now face justice, he added.

'Without a scratch'

Ms Betancourt later told a press conference she at first had had no idea she was being rescued until she saw her captor naked and blindfolded on the floor of the aircraft.

Jan, 2008: Betancourt aide Clara Rojas and ex-congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez freed by Farc
Feb, 2008: Farc vows to hold three US hostages for 60 years
March, 2008: Colombian forces raid rebel camp in Ecuador and kill Farc commander Raul Reyes
March, 2008: Farc leader Manuel Marulanda dies of reported heart attack
April, 2008: Farc says Ecuador raid has "gravely" harmed efforts to free Ms Betancourt
July, 2008: Colombian military frees Ms Betancourt, the three US contractors and 11 other hostages

"I saw this guerrilla commander, who had so often been cruel to us, on the floor," she said. "But I did not feel happiness. I felt sad."

Armed forces chief Gen Freddy Padilla said: "We wanted to have it happen as it did today. Without a single shot. Without anyone wounded. Absolutely safe and sound, without a scratch."

The US ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, said there had been "close co-operation" from the Americans, including sharing of intelligence, equipment and training advice.

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.

Keith Stansell, left, Marc Gonsalves, centre, and Thomas Howes in an unknown location after being released
The released American hostages have flown home
He adds that it is a major blow to the Farc, which had hoped to exchange some 60 political hostages for hundreds of rebels held by the Colombian government, and has now lost a powerful negotiating tool with Ms Betancourt's rescue.

The Farc still holds more than 40 high-profile hostages, among up to 700 other captives.

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

The politician was kidnapped in February 2002 while campaigning in territory controlled by the Farc.

Reuters Colombia tricks rebels in bloodless hostage rescue - 7 hrs ago
Denver Post "Miracle" rescue frees Colombia hostages - 7 hrs ago Betancourt to Meet Sarkozy, Says France Kept Her Alive - 7 hrs ago
CNN Hostages freed; Uribe calls for peace - 7 hrs ago
Sky News Colombian Hostage Relives Rescue - 7 hrs ago

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