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Freedom for Betancourt

DW staff (dc)July 3, 2008

World leaders were united in celebrating the release by Colombian forces of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages from FARC rebels on Wednesday, July 2.

Ingrid Betancourt after her release
Betancourt embraces her mother after arriving in Bogota after six years of captivityImage: AP

Betancourt was seized over six years ago while campaigning for president in the Colombian jungle.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manual Santos said the rescue of the 46-year-old dual citizen and the 14 other hostages happened in an operation that "will no doubt go down in history for its audacity."

Unprecedented operation

Betancourt's captors were duped by a Colombian military team posing as rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Santos said the 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 by helicopter to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader.

Speaking to reporters, Betancourt said the hostages didn't know their new captors were actually Colombian soldiers in disguise. It was only when the helicopter was in the air that "the chief of operations said, 'We are the national army and you are all free.' And the helicopter almost fell because we started jumping. We screamed, we cried, we hugged. We couldn't believe it," Betancourt said.

Betancourt thanks France

Nicolas Sarkozy with Betancourt's children in Paris
Sarkozy met with Betancourt's children Lorenzo and Melanie Delloye in Paris after the news of her releaseImage: AP

She said she will travel to France to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy now that she is free, as she credits her survival of the ordeal to efforts by the French to press for her release. First she will be reunited with her family in Colombia.

Her rescue is considered the most serious blow dealt to FARC, who saw Betancourt and three Americans captured in 2003 as their most valuable bargaining chips.

The Americans -- former Defense Department contract workers Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes -- returned to the United States on Wednesday evening.

US President George W. Bush praised the rescue operation in a phone call with Colombian President Alvare Uribe, the White House said.

In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his gratitude that "a nightmare of more than six years has ended." Sarkozy has sent his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, to Colombia.

Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt's release a priority of his presidency when he office in May last year, added: "Today there is immense joy. All of France is happy about the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt."

European powers welcome hostage release

European papers
Europe was united in celebrating the releaseImage: AP

Germany welcomed the freeing of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and others by government forces, congratulating the government in Bogota on the successful operation.

"We share the joy and relief of the family and friends of Ingrid Betancourt, who has been freed after being held hostage for more than six years," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

He also welcomed the freeing of 14 other hostages, three of them US citizens.

Some of the hostages had been held by the FARC guerrillas for longer than 10 years.

Steinmeier congratulated the Colombian government and expressed the hope that hundreds of other FARC hostages would soon be freed.

Britain welcomed the release of Betancourt and the other hostages, praising Bogota for its rescue operation and calling for other kidnap victims' release.

"The news that Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other captives are now safe comes as an enormous relief," said Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, a day after the former presidential candidate's release from six years of captivity. "Kidnapping is a despicable crime and the hostages had been held in inhumane conditions for many years."

Austria welcomed on the rescue but also called for further efforts to free other FARC hostages.

"Ingrid Betancourt's six-year martyrdom has finally come to a happy ending," Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said in a statement, praising the strength of the former Colombian presidential candidate. "Betancourt has become a symbol of fearlessness and courage in Colombia's internal conflict. Her liberation is an important signal that there can be a turnaround in this unparalleled suffering."

European Union officials added their voices to the chorus.

Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt
Betancourt hailed the rescue operation as "perfect"Image: AP

"I have just learned with relief and joy of the release of the hostages taken by (Colombian guerrilla movement) FARC ... I congratulate all those who worked for their release," European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement in the early hours of Thursday.

EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, "I am extremely relieved and very happy that Ingrid Betancourt's six-year nightmare as well as the captivity of three US citizens and 11 Colombian officials have finally come to an end.

"At the same time our hearts go out to those who remain in captivity ... We call on their captors to release all their hostages immediately and unconditionally," she added.

"Nightmare has ended"

Betancourt had not been seen since a rebel "proof of life" video broadcast last year, in which she appeared thin and depressed in a jungle camp. The US hostages, also shown in the video, described how she was slowly succumbing to Hepatitis B and tropical skin diseases, and was kept chained to a tree after attempts to escape.

Betancourt's family waged a campaign for her freedom, organizing events in both Colombia and France, despite warnings from the Colombian government that raising her profile in such a way only made her a more valuable hostage for the FARC rebels.