Thursday, July 3, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia | Colombian forces scored a big victory in a 44-year war against Marxist insurgents Wednesday by infiltrating their enemy and rescuing former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American hostages and 11 Colombian troops without firing a shot.

Mrs. Betancourt later embraced her mother and her husband on the tarmac of an airport in Bogota after six years in captivity, much of it spent moving from hide-out to hide-out in dense steamy jungles and towering mountains.

“I’m well, thank you,” said Mrs. Betancourt, 46, dressed in military fatigues, her face framed with intricate braids. She spoke with a poise and radiance despite reports of her ill health while in captivity.

Hours earlier, Republican presidential candidate John McCain had been briefed in advance of the rescue plan during a visit to Colombia.

“It’s a very high-risk operation. I congratulate President [Alvaro] Uribe, the military and the nation of Colombia,” Mr. McCain said after the hostages were safe.

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President Bush called Mr. Uribe to congratulate him, as did French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mrs. Betancourt is a dual French-Colombian citizen.

The Americans - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - were flying to the United States to rejoin their families, Colombian officials said.

The rescue highlighted Colombia’s claim that it is winning its war, despite guerrilla claims to the contrary.

This year, Manuel Marulanda, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed.

The rest of the forces are hunkered down in remote jungle and mountain hide-outs, unable to communicate effectively, the Colombian government says. The rebels say the are prepared to keep fighting.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said military intelligence managed to infiltrate the FARC secretariat and a roughly battalion-size guerrilla unit that had control of Mrs. Betancourt, three Americans and 11 Colombian troops.

“It was coordinated so that the kidnapped victims would be picked up at a pre-determined site by a helicopter of a fictitious organization” supportive of FARC, he said.

The hostages were put on the copter, along with a FARC commander named Cesar and another guerrilla, who thought they were escorting the hostages to a new guerrilla hide-out.

Once the helicopter was safely in the air, the hostages were unbound and the two FARC escorts arrested by Colombian soldiers dressed in Che Guevara T-shirts.

“The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another. We couldn’t believe it,” Mrs. Betancourt said.

Mr. Santos described the rescue as a “special intelligence operation designed and executed by our military; 15 of the hostages in the FARC’s hands were rescued safe and sound.” No foreign assistance was involved, added army chief Gen. Mario Montoya.

Mrs. Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 and three American contractors working for the U.S. Defense Department were seized in 2003.

Concerns had been raised about Mrs. Betancourt’s health since guerrillas released a videotape late last year to prove that she, the three Americans and other Colombian hostages were still alive.

Just days before Wednesday’s rescue, a reporter for The Washington Times - riding on a horse over 13,000-foot mountain passes - managed to reach and interview FARC guerrillas.

The guerrillas denied their insurgency was on the ropes and insisted that they were prepared to fight “as long as it takes.”

They also said Mrs. Betancourt was in good shape.

“Ingrid is in good health, and so are the Americans,” one guerrilla told The Times on the condition of anonymity.

The three Americans were on a counternarcotics mission when their plane crashed in a coca-growing area with a heavy guerrilla presence.

FARC guerrillas said they held 37 “political prisoners,” or, in the case of the Americans, “prisoners of war.”

If the figures are accurate, at least 22 political hostages remain in captivity. FARC has wanted to trade hostages for imprisoned militants.

Mr. Uribe and the guerrillas have been at an impasse over conditions needed to begin negotiations over a swap.

FARC holds hundreds of other hostages, but their fate is thought to be tied to ransom payments, Colombian authorities say.

Mrs. Betancourt tearfully appealed to FARC to release the remaining hostages and make peace.

She thanked Mr. Uribe, against whom she was running when she was kidnapped, calling him “an excellent president for our country.”

Asked about her political future, she said: “I continue to aspire to serve Colombia.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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