July 3, 2008

Colombian Military Tricks Guerrillas into Freeing Hostages

In a daring rescue Wednesday, the Colombian military freed 15 hostages held for years by leftist guerrillas, including Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate, three Floridians working under a U.S. Defense Department contract, and 11 Colombian military and police.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said military spies tricked rebels from the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, into freeing the hostages, one held for a decade, without a single injury.

Betancourt, who had been held for six years, and all but the Americans were flown to an air base in Colombia. She appeared thin but healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace. She said she still aspires to the presidency.

"God, this is a miracle," Betancourt said. "Such a perfect operation is unprecedented."

Betancourt and the three Americans, who were flown directly to the United States, were among the FARC's most prized hostages. For many, their release signals the guerrillas' diminishing power and points to the effectiveness of President Alvaro Uribe as a leader, analysts said.

Santos said military intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and led the local commander in charge of the hostages, alias Cesar, to believe they were going to take the captives to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader.

The hostages, who had been divided in three groups, were taken to a rendezvous where two disguised helicopters piloted by Colombian military agents were waiting. Betancourt said her hands and feet were bound, which she called "humiliating."

The pilots, she said, were posing as members of a relief organization, but "they were dressed like clowns," wearing Che Guevara shirts, so she assumed they were rebels.

But when they were airborne, she looked behind her and saw Cesar, who had treated her so cruelly for so many years, lying on the floor blindfolded.

"The chief of the operation said, 'We're the national army. You're free,'" she said. "The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another. We couldn't believe it."

Betancourt's aunt, Nancy Pulecio, who lives in Miami, applauded the government's rescue mission.

"I am very happy. It was our greatest hope for six years. We couldn't understand why it wasn't fulfilled sooner," said Pulecio.

Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002 as she campaigned for the presidency. France made her captivity a national cause, as she holds dual French and Colombian citizenship.

The three Americans released were Thomas Howes of Merritt Island, Marc Gonsalves of Big Pine Key and Keith Stansell of Bradenton. They worked for a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary as Pentagon contractors and were captured a year after Betancourt when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. They had been in captivity longer than any other Americans.

In South Florida, home to roughly 350,000 Colombian Americans, the news sparked relief and euphoria. Alberto Cheverri, 62, was kidnapped by guerrillas and held for six months in 1998. His family paid an undisclosed ransom for his release.

"It's an extraordinary event. It demonstrates the government can prevail over the guerrillas," Cheverri said. "Colombia is finally taking back its power."

Oscar Panesso, who moved to Bogota from Miami just days ago to continue his work with Civil Rescue, an international group that organizes marches against the FARC via the Internet, said the guerrillas' days were waning.

"We are well on the path to getting the other hostages released," said Panesso, who is organizing a July 12 march in the Colombian jungle that will culminate in a meeting with FARC leaders.

Bruce Bagley, chairman of the University of Miami's Department of International Studies and an expert on Colombia, said the rescue demonstrates the improved capabilities of Colombia's modernized military. He added that the United States has contributed significantly to the Colombian armed forces and their training.

"This is a vindication and a triumph for President Alvaro Uribe's plan Democratic Security," Bagley said. "The defeat of FARC is probably not imminent. But clearly there's evidence that they are on a downward slide."

By Tal Abbady and Luis F. Perez. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.