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Colombia rescue uses bravery, good acting

A soldier stands guard by FARC leader Gerardo Aguila Ramirez, who was arrested Wednesday.

Associated Press

A soldier stands guard by FARC leader Gerardo Aguila Ramirez, who was arrested Wednesday.

BOGOTA, Colombia — At 5 a.m. Wednesday, the sun had yet to peek through the jungle canopy in this country's Guaviare Department when the guerrillas told their captives to gather their belongings. A call had come from a top adviser to Alfonso Cano, their new supreme commander. He said to move. Immediately.

Or so the guerrillas thought. In fact, the gravelly voice that sounded so full of authority belonged not to Cano, a grizzled leader of Latin America's most feared insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but rather to a government officer.

The fighters had been duped. With the help of satellite telephone intercepts and a spy who infiltrated FARC's upper echelons, the Colombian military had planned and executed an operation that ended an international hostage saga and upended Colombia's four-decade civil war.

The voice was one of many dramatic touches in a daring rescue that exploited recent disarray within FARC. Its founder, Manuel Marulanda, has died, security forces killed its second-in-command, Raul Reyes, this spring, and some 3,000 combatants have deserted in the last year.

The rescue, described by commanders of the Colombian army and officials in Washington and Bogota, was almost exclusively a Colombian operation that highlighted a military that has benefited from $5.4-billion in aid from the United States since 2000.

The planning was meticulous. Elite commandos took acting classes for a week and a half.

Colombian intelligence officials led the guerrillas to believe that they were transporting the captives to two helicopters that were used by an unnamed aid group. The aircraft, painted white and black, were intended to look similar to helicopters used by Venezuela's government in two previous hostage negotiations this year.

Four pilots from Colombia's air force dressed as civilians. The eight other people on the MI-17 helicopters appeared to be aid workers, guerrillas, journalists.

The Colombians had collected a trove of knowledge about the hostages' location. The first details came in April when John Frank Pinchao, a policeman held captive by FARC for almost nine years, escaped from his captors by walking through thick jungle for seventeen days, emerging emaciated and wide-eyed.

Upon debriefing Pinchao, intelligence officials began piecing together the area in which FARC held captives, southeast of Bogota in Guaviare.

The Colombians installed U.S.-provided video monitoring devices along rivers that are the only transport route through the dense jungles, U.S. and Colombian officials said. U.S. surveillance planes intercepted radio and satellite phone conversations and employed foliage-penetrating imagery.

After FARC released two captives in January to envoys of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Colombian troops in Guaviare even glimpsed the three American hostages near the Apaporis River. For four days, "we had eyes on them," U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said. But a rescue operation was deemed too risky.

Four hostages released by FARC in late February offered further logistical information. But in the end, a turncoat was the key.

A disgruntled FARC member, trusted by both the rebels' high command and by the leader of the 1st Front which was holding the hostages, agreed to spearhead the operation. The turncoat was upset with FARC because his commander had taken a house and farm from him. This was payback.

He convinced Gerardo Aguila Ramirez, alias Cesar, the commander of the 1st Front, that top commanders wanted the 15 hostages moved to a rallying point.

It would require near perfect execution by a military that only a few years ago could rarely be trusted. But this time, the Colombians performed like stars. There was no need for Plan B — sending 39 helicopters and 2,000 troops.

The turncoat will likely receive a sizable amount from a $100-million government reward fund.

The success validated years of financial assistance and joint training, U.S. officials says. For the 15 hostages, including 12 Colombians held over several years, release meant so much more. It meant going home.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

>>FAST FACTS

Who remains

Some 40 political hostages, all members of the police or military, are still being held by the FARC. They are being held as political bargaining chips to swap for jailed FARC members. No ransom is being sought.

There are also hundreds — the exact number is not known — of civilian kidnaping victims for whom the FARC seeks ransom. The government says kidnapping has been greatly reduced in recent years.

Times staff

Colombia rescue uses bravery, good acting 07/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 10:40pm]

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