Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 14:38 UK

Betancourt hails 'perfect' rescue

Ingrid Betancourt is reunited with her family

French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt has hailed as a "miracle" her release from more than six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle.

"There is no historical precedent for such a perfect operation," she said.

Ms Betancourt and 14 other hostages were rescued without a shot being fired after rebels holding them were tricked into handing them over.

Ms Betancourt is holding an emotional reunion with her family in Bogota. She was held captive for over six years.

Political aspiration

Colombian soldiers, posing as members of a non-government organisation, flew the hostages to freedom in a helicopter.

When the head of the operation told them that 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," the 46-year-old added.

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

The Americans - military contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - have flown back to Texas, where they are expected to be reunited with their families and undergo medical tests.

The left-wing Farc has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government for 40 years.

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

The group still holds hundreds of people hostage, but Ms Betancourt was their highest profile captive.

President Alvaro Uribe congratulated the army on the operation, and urged the Farc to release its remaining hostages and seek peace.

A pale Ms Betancourt smiled as she emerged with other hostages from a military plane in the Colombian capital, Bogota, to be embraced by her mother and husband.

She appealed to the Farc to free its remaining 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".

She added: "I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made the rescue of Ms Betancourt a foreign policy priority, joined her family for a press conference in Paris before Mrs Betancourt's children boarded a plane for Bogota with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Mrs Betancourt, who had been waiting at the airport, raced up the steps of the aircraft to embrace her son, Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt, and daughter Melanie.

Earlier, Lorenzo had told reporters that hearing of his mother's rescue was "the best moment of my life". His sister had said it was like "emerging from a bad dream".

Sketchy details

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

This is the beginning of the end of Farc. As a Colombian citizen, I feel proud of my government and of the armed forces
Pedro, Bogota, Colombia

Accounts from freed hostages that she was gravely ill heightened concerns for her welfare.

Precise details of how the rescue operation unfolded remain sketchy, but Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the Farc rebels had been tricked into handing over the hostages.

He said that soldiers had posed 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, a man known as 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 told a press conference that she had no idea she was being rescued until she saw Cesar naked and blindfolded on the floor of the aircraft.

Keith Stansell, left, Marc Gonsalves, centre, and Thomas Howes in an unknown location after being released
The released American hostages have flown home
"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 the sharing of intelligence, equipment and training advice.

The rescued Americans were captured after their light aircraft crashed in the Colombian jungle in 2003.

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

Feb, 2002: Betancourt kidnapped by Farc rebels
Feb, 2003: US defence contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves seized by after their plane goes down in southern Colombia
Jan, 2008: Betancourt aide Clara Rojas and ex-congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez freed by Farc
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
July, 2008: Colombian military frees Ms Betancourt, the three US contractors and 11 other hostages

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.

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.

The politician was kidnapped in February 2002 while campaigning as a presidential candidate in territory controlled by the Farc.

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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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