Dramatic rescue in Colombia
Commandos dramatically rescued Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages by posing as their Marxist rebel captors and flying them out of their jungle prison by helicopter.
Betancourt paid tribute to the international efforts to end her six years in captivity and admitted even she had been taken in by the army operation late Wednesday which also freed three US defense contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers.
"To all of you Colombians, for all of you French who have been with us, that accompanied us in the world, that helped us to remain alive, that helped the world to know what was going on: thank you," Betancourt said after her release.
She said the hostages did not know that rebels who had come to move them to a new hideout were Colombian soldiers in disguise, noting some wore T-shirts bearing the portrait of legendary revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
The disguised soldiers made the hostages board a helicopter with their wrists bound, saying they were being transferred to a new Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) base.
It was only when they were in the air that "the chief of operations said, 'We are the national army and you are all free,' Betancourt said after arriving at Bogota's military airport.
"And the helicopter almost fell because we started jumping. We screamed, we cried, we hugged. We couldn't believe it."
As she descended from the plane looking fresh and happy, dressed in an army camouflage vest and hat, Betancourt embraced her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, and praised the "perfect operation" that had freed her.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the rescue, made possible by a military agent's infiltration of the rebels, “will no doubt go down in history for its audacity."
US ambassador to Bogota William Brownfield told CNN that Washington had provided "technical support" to the operation but Santos insisted it was a "one hundred percent Colombian" effort.
Betancourt, a candidate for the Green party, and her campaign manager Clara Rojas, were abducted by the FARC on February 23, 2002. Rojas was released in January.
Speaking in French and Spanish, Betancourt thanked everyone for keeping their plight alive.
"We were able to dream. We were able to keep hope alive because we heard our loved ones" on the radio, she said, according to a translation on CNN.
US hostages Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, captured in 2003 when their plane crashed during a US defense department anti-drug mission, arrived back in the United States early Thursday.
The men, employees of US defense contractor Northrop Grumman, landed at a military base in San Antonio, Texas, and were taken by helicopter to a US army medical center.
World leaders hailed the release and celebrations broke out on the streets of Colombian cities to mark the brazen jungle rescue as a bright spot for a country plagued for decades by kidnappings.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who spoke with Betancourt just after her release, praised the "magnificent work" of the rescue team and compared the operation "to the greatest epics in the history of man."
There had been mounting fears for Betancourt's health following the release of a video showing her looking thin and frail, but her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, said in Bogota he was surprised to see her looking so well.
Betancourt's teenage son, Lorenzo Delloye, told AFP it was "an indescribable joy" to hear that his 46-year-old mother was free.
US President George W. Bush congratulated Colombia, telling Uribe he was a "strong leader," while French President Nicolas Sarkozy also thanked Uribe and called on the FARC to end their "absurd" struggle.