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Page last updated at 06:11 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 07:11 UK

Audacious rescue deals Farc a blow

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Ingrid Betancourt (left) smiles at her husband Juan Carlos Lecompte upon her arrival at the Catam air base, Bogota, 2 July 2008
Ms Betancourt said her rescue was a "perfect operation"

In an operation of unprecedented audacity, the Colombian security forces have rescued 15 hostages from the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

The initiative has dealt a mortal blow to the left-wing guerrillas' plans to secure the release of hundreds of rebels in prison.

"Thank you to the army, from my country of Colombia, thank you for your impeccable operation," said Ingrid Betancourt, the most famous of the hostages in guerrilla hands, as she landed in the capital Bogota to be greeted by her mother and husband.

"The operation was perfect."

Not a shot was fired by the Colombian security forces as they managed to free the most closely-protected hostages, guarded by the cream of Farc rebels.

'You are free'

The military operation, codenamed Check - as in "checkmate" - was the result of high level infiltration of the guerrilla army.

Farc have now lost, in one fell swoop, all the trump cards for their negotiations for a prisoner exchange and their principal diplomatic weapon to force the government into making concessions

"This operation... is without precedent and shows the high quality and professionalism of the Colombian armed forces," said Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos.

Somehow, double agents managed to persuade Farc's feared First Front leader, alias "Cesar", to put the hostages onto a helicopter, saying that they were to be taken to the guerrillas' top leader "Alfonso Cano".

It was only when the helicopter was in the air that the soldiers revealed their identity and overpowered the rebels on board.

"I did not realise what was going on until 'Cesar' was tied up on the floor, naked and one of the men said: 'We are from the army and you are free,'" said Ms Betancourt as she described the rescue mission.

Farc have now lost, in one fell swoop, all the trump cards for their negotiations for a prisoner exchange and their principal diplomatic weapon to force the government into making concessions.

President Alvaro Uribe, who has always refused to grant the guerrillas their precondition for talks, a large demilitarised zone in the south-west of the country, now has no reason to cede anything.

Farc in disarray

The international pressure which he endured, principally from presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, is likely to melt away.

The rescue also vindicates his tough policy against the guerrillas who killed his father, and it will allow him to continue unhindered in his plans to defeat Farc militarily and force them to the negotiating table.

This latest incident shows, yet again, that Farc are in disarray, reeling after a series of blows.

In March this year one of their top commanders, "Raul Reyes" was killed when the Colombian air force bombed a rebel camp within Ecuador, sparking an international row that has still not been resolved.

A week later another leader, "Ivan Rios", was murdered by one of his bodyguards, who collected the bounty offered by the government.

Then the most serious of all, the death from a heart attack of Farc's 78-year-old founder and leader, "Manuel Marulanda".




FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Reuters Colombia tricks rebels in bloodless hostage rescue - 7 hrs ago
Denver Post "Miracle" rescue frees Colombia hostages - 7 hrs ago
FOXNews.com 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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