Brazen Rescue in Colombia Captured on Video

A video taken during the Colombian mission that rescued 15 hostages shows them hugging one another and crying tears of joy. Video by AP
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 5, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 4 -- A video shot by a commando posing as a journalist recorded the rescue of 15 hostages in a daring operation that was celebrated Friday from Colombia to as far away as Paris, where French leaders welcomed the best known of the hostages, Ingrid Betancourt.

The video shows Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician and author, looking grim as guerrillas hand her and other hostages over in a grassy field in southeastern Guaviare province. The rebels didn't know it, but those taking custody of the prized prisoners were Colombian soldiers, playing the part of relief workers and fellow guerrillas.

Keith Stansell, one of three Americans in the group, addresses the camera, apparently trying to get a message to loved ones. "I love my family," he says. "Pray a lot."

Moments later, aboard a military helicopter that had been painted white to make it appear to belong to a humanitarian organization, the eight commandos overpowered two guerrilla commanders who had come aboard. That is not shown, but soon the video offers images of the hostages in celebration, informed that they are free. As Betancourt later recounted, the Mi-17 transport began to rock as the former hostages jumped, hugged and cried with joy.

"We waited, we waited 10 years for this!" one soldier yells, over and over. Another shouts, "Thank you, brother!" Betancourt is seen weeping with joy as she hugs William PĂ©rez, a soldier who had been with her in one clandestine jungle prison after another.

Code-named Check, as in checkmate, the operation was a carefully staged con in which fake communications were sent to the guerrilla guards to make them believe that the rebel group's high command wanted the captives transferred. The guards were told a helicopter would come for the hostages -- and it did, complete with crewmen posing as journalists, relief workers and fellow members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a decades-old rebel group.

When the handover took place, the commandos put plastic handcuffs on their charges as punctuation for the deception.

The video, a little over three minutes in length, shows one of the rebel commanders cheerfully refusing to be interviewed and pans a bucolic field where several other rebels stand out, holding rifles.

On Friday, Stansell and the other two freed Americans, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, released a statement through Maj. Gen. Keith M. Huber, U.S. Army South commander at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. "For five and a half long years, we all hoped and prayed this day would come. Now that it has, we're just overwhelmed with emotion. The love and the joy we're all experiencing is beyond description," the statement said.

The men praised the government and armed forces of Colombia, their employer, Northrup Grumman, and the U.S. government, and added a message to hostages left behind: "Our prayers and our thoughts are with you and your loved ones. We haven't forgotten you, and we never will."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company