BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombian soldiers tricked leftist guerrillas in a jungle camp into freeing 15 hostages, including a former presidential candidate and three U.S. military contractors, officials said yesterday.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the military rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans employed by Northrop Grumman Corp. and 11 soldiers and police officers held for years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"This was an unprecedented operation," Santos told reporters. "It will go down in history for its audaciousness and effectiveness."
The daring rescue ends an excruciating ordeal for Betancourt, who was captured in February 2002. The three Americans, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes - who worked for a Northrop Grumman subsidiary based in Harford County - were taken prisoner when their single-engine plane crashed in Caqueta province in February 2003.The three were flown directly to the United States to reunite with their families and undergo tests and treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The rescue brought expressions of joy from the hostages' families and from Colombians who have endured decades of bloody civil war and waves of kidnappings. The rescue of such high-profile hostages is also an important victory for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, coming as he is being increasingly criticized for his poor record on human rights.
According to Colombian officials, the military used a ruse to persuade the guerrillas into bringing the hostages together in the jungles in southeast Colombia, about 150 miles southeast of Bogota.
From there, they were supposed to be transported by helicopter to meet Alfonso Cano, the new rebel commander.
But as the hostages and two FARC guards boarded the helicopter, the guards were either forced or persuaded to give up the hostages without a shot. The helicopter was the Colombian army's, staffed by a commando unit.
The hostages were then flown from the rescue point near San Jose del Guaviare to Colombia's largest air force base near Melgar, and then on to Bogota, where they were met by their families and dignitaries.
Television images showed a joyous Betancourt wearing camouflage fatigues.
"Let's see if I can speak because I am very, very moved," she said. "Please join me to thank God. ... I imagined this moment very often."
She thanked her supporters, but her biggest praise was for her rescuers. "Thank you to the army for its impeccable operation. The operation was perfect," she said.
The Americans were captured after their plane crashed during an anti-drug surveillance mission. They are expected to return to the United States shortly.
No injuries were reported in the rescue, and two top FARC commanders were arrested, officials said.
In Washington, Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said President Bush had called Uribe to praise the rescue.
The FARC, which has been waging war for more than four decades, still has more than 700 hostages, including 400 military and police.
Betancourt, 46, was kidnapped in 2002 while campaigning for president after peace talks between the government and the rebels broke down. She became the highest-profile prisoner and an international symbol of the incarcerated, in part because of her dual citizenship with France.
Chris Kraul and Michael Muskal write for the Los Angeles Times. Staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed from Washington.