The hostage Ingrid Betancourt, an international cause celebre for her suffering in captivity, was dramatically rescued by Colombian troops yesterday after being held in secret jungle camps for almost six years.
Colombian soldiers disguised as members of a non-governmental organisation hoodwinked a guerrilla leader into allowing Ms Betancourt and three US hostages to board a helicopter to freedom, according to Colombia's Defence Minister.
A former Colombian presidential candidate and a French citizen through marriage, Ms Betancourt, 46, was reported yesterday to be in reasonable health despite the hardships of the malarial jungle. During her years of captivity she was routinely chained and forced to march barefoot as punishment for her stubbornness and attempts to escape. Ms Betancourt's celebrity-status in Europe and Latin America added to her suffering as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, viewed her as a key bargaining chip.
Various high-profile attempts to negotiate her freedom were blocked. Fifteen hostages including three Pentagon contractors, the longest-held US hostages anywhere in the world, were freed in all.
The dramatic rescue by the Colombian army is the most serious blow the guerrilla organisation has suffered in its long insurgency. Farc claims to represent the rural poor in its struggle with Colombia's business class. It funds its revolutionary war through drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping.
According to the Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, the rescue saw military intelligence agents infiltrate the guerrillas unit holding 15 hostages and then deceive them. Mr Santos said soldiers posed as members of a fictitious non-government organisation and persuaded the local guerrilla leader that they would fly the hostages by helicopter to a camp to meet with the rebel leader Alfonso Cano. Once surrounded by military commandos, the guerrillas gave up without a fight as the helicopters took the hostages to a military base. "The helicopters picked up the hostages in Guaviare and flew them to freedom. This was an unprecedented operation," said Mr Santos.
Money may also have figured in the dramatic release, as it has in the meltdown of the military command structure of Farc over recent months. The organisation once controlled more than half the country, but it has lost three top commanders in recent months as a result of penetration by government agents.
Ms Betancourt was captured in February 2002 during the presidential election campaign when she travelled to an area where the guerrillas were known to be operating. Her campaign partner Clara Rojas, who bore a child while in captivity, was released at the start of this year, following an appeal by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
But the guerrillas had no intention of giving up Ms Betancourt without major concessions from Bogota. A rebel video released at the end of last year showed the first images in years of Ms Betancourt. She looked despondent and ill, raising fears for her survival. The video, along with letters from other hostages, described a once-vibrant and confident woman who was turning to depression and slowly succumbing to Hepatitis B and tropical skin diseases.
"In all these years, I thought that as long as I was alive, as long as I continued to breathe, I must continue to hope," she wrote in a letter released at the end of 2007. "I don't have the strength I used to have."
Ms Betancourt's release was greeted with national rejoicing in France. The President Nicolas Sarkozy had made Ms Betancourt's release a foreign policy priority. Last night he said: "Ingrid is in good health. She is on a Colombian military base... My first words are to tell her how happy we are that she is free." Ms Betancourt's French daughter Melanie Delloye, 22, said that she was " living the best moments of my life".
She urged that efforts should continue to release the hundreds of other hostages held by the Farc guerrillas.
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