By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Colombia's military yesterday rescued the most prominent of several hundred hostages held by Marxist rebels, a group of 15 that included the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American Defense Department contractors who had been imprisoned in remote jungle camps since 2003.
In what Colombian officials called an elaborate ruse, commandos deceived a rebel unit entrusted with the prized hostages into turning them over in a grassy field deep in southeastern Guaviare province. The prisoners, who included 11 Colombian soldiers, were then flown to freedom in what amounted to a powerful blow to a fast-waning insurgency.
By late afternoon, the hostages were transported to the main military air base in Bogota, the Colombian capital, where they were reunited with relatives as a military band played the national anthem.
Betancourt, wearing a floppy jungle hat, the kind of flimsy rubber boots worn by guerrillas, and a white flower in her braided hair, stepped off a plane and into the waiting arms of her mother, Yolanda Pulecio. She then addressed well-wishers in comments carried on national television, praising Colombia's military for "an impeccable operation."
"God, this is a miracle. Such a perfect operation is unprecedented," said Betancourt, 46, an author and former presidential candidate taken prisoner by rebels in 2002.
Betancourt and the Americans -- who were believed to have been held longer than any other U.S. citizens currently in captivity in the world -- were among the hostages that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hoped to trade for hundreds of their imprisoned comrades. Using Colombia's vast and rugged terrain to its advantage, the FARC has for years taken its prisoners deep into the jungle and threatened to kill them if the military attempted a rescue.
Shortly after midnight this morning, the Americans arrived in San Antonio aboard a U.S. military plane. Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves -- employees of Northrop Grumman Corp. -- were to undergo medical exams at the Brooke Army Medical Center and be reunited with their families. The FARC took them hostage after their surveillance plane crashed in rebel territory.
George Gonsalves, father of Marc Gonsalves, said he had been on the front lawn of his home in Connecticut when his next-door neighbor came rushing out of her kitchen door, waving her arms to tell her about the news she had just seen on television.
"We went dashing back to the house, and there it was on CNN," he said. "It's just wonderful, just wonderful."
A breathless Lynne Stansell, Keith Stansell's mother, said by phone that her family was overwhelmed by the early reports.
"Some people are coming to help us handle this," she said, when reached by phone at her Florida home. "We can't really react right now. It's just all too emotional."
The news was also greeted with relief and amazement in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had campaigned vigorously for Betancourt's release, declared the "end of an ordeal that lasted for more than six years." Halfway around the world, in the Colombian city of Medellin, television coverage was nonstop.
"This is incredible, absolutely incredible," said Francisco Jaramillo, 63, who sat in a downtown bar, watching the coverage. "I never imagined we'd see this day."
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters earlier in the day that the rescue mission had been made possible by "a special intelligence" operation that had penetrated the highest reaches of the FARC, including the group's seven-man directorate and one of the rings of specialized rebel units entrusted with guarding hostages. Santos said that ring, commanded by a rebel known by the alias Cesar, was tricked into believing that the FARC's leader had called for the hostages to be brought to him.
Yesterday, two white helicopters arrived in a jungle clearing where the hostages were being held. The men in the helicopters looked like guerrillas, Betancourt later said, describing details of the rescue at the military airport.
"Absolutely surreal," she said, noting that some of the men who got off the helicopter wore T-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. "I thought this was the FARC," she said.
Their hands bound, the hostages were forced aboard the helicopters, wondering where they would be taken next in their long ordeal. But once aboard, Betancourt said, Cesar and another guerrilla were overpowered and the crewmen announced that the passengers were now free. "The chief of the operation said: 'We're the national army. You're free,' " she said. "The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another. We couldn't believe it."
Betancourt said that though Cesar had treated her cruelly, humiliating her in the four years in which he had watched over her, she felt pity for him and the other rebels who were captured. She also asked the FARC not to punish rebels who had been left behind and had only later learned they had been duped.
Santos and other military officials did not elaborate on the details of the operation, nor did they indicate whether FARC deserters had assisted in the cause and, if so, whether they were paid. But military officials have in recent months detailed how FARC rebels who abandoned the rebel group have betrayed commanders for money, with some earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for information leading to the capture or killing of top leaders.
"This was an operation without precedent that will pass into history for its audacity and effectiveness," Santos said. "Fifteen hostages were rescued without firing a single shot."
President Bush called Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to congratulate him, and Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, praised the Colombian armed forces. "This was a Colombia-planned, -led and -executed operation," he said.
Still, William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Bogota, told CNN's Larry King that the American military helped Colombian intelligence officers with planning, exchanging ideas and troubleshooting before the Colombians launched the operation.
Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said the operation showed that Colombia's army continues to make headway against the FARC, which once had more than 17,000 fighters and controlled large swaths of Colombia.
Military officials now say the rebel group numbers perhaps 10,000 fighters and has lost many of its most experience field commanders. Indeed, in March two of its highest-ranking leaders were killed, one by his own men, and the founder and longtime leader of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack. Hundreds of guerrillas are also deserting every month.
"It's the best news I've heard from the Colombian armed forces," Frechette said. "Obviously brilliantly executed, well-organized, probably for some months and probably aided by the rewards paid by the government. They got 15 of the high-value hostages out. The FARC are diminished and weakened."
Santos, the defense minister, reiterated the government's offer that leaders of the rebel group, now in its 44th year of armed struggle against the state, enter into peace negotiations. Some analysts have been hopeful that Guillermo Sáenz Vargas, also known as Alfonso Cano, the commander who replaced Marulanda, will lead the rebel group to the peace table.
"One more time we make the call to the new leaders of the FARC to lay down their arms, so they are not killed nor that they sacrifice their men," Santos said. "The government reiterates to them that if they want to enter into serious negotiations in good faith, we are offering a dignified peace."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Paris; staff writers Carol D. Leonnig, Josh White and Dan Eggen in Washington; and washingtonpost.com writer Travis Fox in Medellin, Colombia, contributed to this report.