BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing over kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors Wednesday in a daring helicopter rescue so successful that not a single shot was fired.
Betancourt, who was seized on the campaign trail six years ago, appeared thin but surprisingly healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace. The Americans – Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell – also appeared well as they arrived in Texas to undergo tests and reunite with their families.
“God, this is a miracle,” Betancourt said. “Such a perfect operation is unprecedented.”
Eleven Colombian police and soldiers also were freed in the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which considered the four hostages their most valuable bargaining chips. The FARC is already reeling from the deaths of key commanders and the loss of much of the territory it once held.
Nowhere in the world have American hostages currently in captivity been held longer, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel 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 them to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas’ supreme leader, to discuss a possible hostage swap.
The hostages, who had been divided in three groups, were taken to a rendezvous with two disguised MI-17 helicopters piloted by Colombian military agents – one on the ground, the other hovering above. The choppers were painted white, without insignias.
At first Betancourt thought the pilots – a crew of four with nine “assistants” dressed in white – were from a relief organization. Then she saw their Che Guevara shirts and assumed they were rebels.
Only when they were airborne did she notice that Cesar, who had treated her so cruelly for so many years, was naked and blindfolded on the floor.
“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.”
The operation, Santos said, “will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness.”
“We wanted to have it happen as it did today,” added armed forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla. “Without a single shot. Without anyone wounded. Absolutely safe and sound, without a scratch.”
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe later led a celebratory news conference where he said his government isn’t interested in “spilling blood” and wants the FARC to understand that he seeks “a path to peace, total peace.”
Although officials said everyone directly involved in the rescue were Colombians, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said there was “close cooperation” from the Americans that included “exchange of intelligence” as well as “exchange of equipment, training advice and experiences of other operations. I will not enter into details.”
Santos said Cesar and another rebel who boarded the chopper were overpowered after being persuaded to hand over their pistols. Both will face justice, while 58 others were allowed to escape into the jungle in hopes that they will free an estimated 700 remaining hostages, he 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 hugged her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, and her husband, Juan Carlos LeCompte.
Throughout her first day of freedom, 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.”
Brownfield said two of the Americans suffered from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and were “looking forward to modern medical treatment” at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.