Americans among 15 hostages rescued in Colombia

The dramatic news spread joy throughout an entire nation: 15 hostages held by left-wing rebels in Colombia had been rescued.

Some had been held for as many as 10 years. Ingrid Betancourt, the only female hostage, was a former presidential candidate in Colombia.

Among the freed hostages: three American defense contractors, all with family ties to Florida, who were the longest-held American captives in the world. They were captured by guerrillas in February 2003 when their narcotics surveillance plane crashed in the jungle.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos made the announcement at a news conference Wednesday, saying the hostages had been rescued in a bloodless and wily military operation that lured the rebels into a government trap.

Details of the hostage rescue were like something out of Hollywood. Santos said that intelligence forces infiltrated the high command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its initials FARC, and tricked them into grouping together three groups of hostages at a central meeting point.

The pretext was that an international nonprofit group would take them by helicopter to the FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano. Instead, Colombian commandos were aboard the helicopters and forced the hostages' kidnappers to surrender while in flight without firing a shot.

A few hours after Santos made the announcement, a smiling Betancourt walked down the steps of a government plane wearing a floppy military camouflage hat into the arms of her waiting mother.

One by one the hostages emerged, minus the three Americans, Keith Stansell, Tomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves. They flew to the United States, arriving at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas early this morning.

Looking pallid, Betancourt bit her lip and closed her eyes to control her emotions before addressing a throng of reporters.

She thanked God, before turning to her mother.

"Mother, don't cry any more,'' she said. "This is a miracle,'' she repeated several times, barely able to believe she was free.

"We've been told they will fly us all out there (Texas) for a yellow-ribbon welcome home ceremony," Keith Stansell's relieved stepmother, Lynne Stansell, told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview from her home in Bradenton.

She said Pentagon officials came to her home Wednesday afternoon and set up a phone to receive a call from Keith from a Colombian military base.

Waiting to speak to him were his two children, Lauren, 19, and Kyle 16. "They are floating," she added.

When the family first got word of the rescue they were excited but fearful, Stansell said. "We were scared to death it would go wrong and they would be caught in the crossfire."

Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002 on a presidential campaign trip into rebel territory. A dual citizen of Colombia and France, her fate was a cause celebre in Europe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned relentlessly on her behalf alongside her two young children, appealing to the FARC to free their mother.

Betancourt's health has been in serious doubt after video pictures were released in November of her looking gaunt and frail, as well as the accounts of escaped hostages who said they feared she could not survive much longer.

Those reports also revealed the portrait of a heroic woman who kept a defiant attitude toward her captors, winning the admiration of her fellow hostages, including the Americans. She tried to escape at least five times, only to be recaptured after losing her way in the thick jungle.

Once she gave herself back up to the guerrillas after a fellow escapee became too ill to continue.

Betancourt, her long dark hair pulled up in braids, thanked all those who had spared a thought for her over the years, especially the Colombian media, which has covered the hostage story on a daily basis.

"I want to thank all of you who accompanied me and thought of me and kept me in your hearts,'' she said. She reserved special praise for the Colombian military and President Alvaro Uribe, for pulling off an "impeccable'' rescue.

"The operation was perfect,'' she said, describing how the rebels had been tricked into putting the hostages on the helicopter, which carried a "surrealistic'' delegation wearing white jackets and some with iconic Che Guevara T-shirts.

None of the hostages had any idea what was going on until a military officer stood up and announced, "We are the National Army. You are all free.''

The helicopter nearly dropped out of the sky, Betancourt said, as the hostages jumped up and down and leapt into each others arms with joy.

Colombia's Defense Ministry said military intelligence agents had infiltrated the highest ranks of the FARC to pull off the rescue.

The local commander of the elite FARC unit in charge of the hostages, alias Cesar, was somehow tricked into believing his bosses had ordered the helicopter transport.

The hostage rescue is a huge political and military blow to the once-indomitable FARC, coming on top of the deaths of three top commanders this year, including its legendary founder Manuel Marulanda.

"What an amazing ruse,'' said Gabriel Marcella, a Colombia expert who retired last week from the U.S. Army War College. "The fact that they were able to infiltrate FARC at that level shows the weakening of their operational capability.''

The FARC had been holding out for a prisoner swap, seeking to exchange about 60 of their hostages for hundreds of rebels held in Colombian jails.

But Wednesday's rescue of Betancourt and three Americans removed the FARC's most prized bargaining chips. Also released were 11 Colombian police and soldiers.

Another 40 police and soldiers remain in captivity, as well as an unknown number of civilians estimated in the hundreds.

Times wires were used in this report.

Americans among 15 hostages rescued in Colombia 07/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:30pm]

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