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Colombian Officials Recount Rescue Plan

A video taken during the Colombian mission that rescued 15 hostages shows them hugging one another and crying tears of joy. Video by AP

The most important development for the intelligence unit planning what would be the FARC's most humiliating defeat was the group's faltering communications system. Guerrilla commanders once openly talked on satellite phones. But with military operatives increasingly listening in, rebel communications have been reduced to couriers and carefully planned, succinct radio messages.

One key message from Jan. 18, discovered in the computer of a dead rebel commander, was of particular interest to the military high command because it showed the extent to which even members of the FARC's seven-man directorate are cut off from the units they command.

In the message, Jorge Briceño, a powerful leader known as El Mono Jojoy, wrote about how the guerrillas had misplaced a baby boy who was to have been liberated in a carefully orchestrated hostage release. The unit that lost track of the boy was an important player in the drug trade, and authorities had thought Briceño would have kept closer tabs on its operations.

"Jojoy doesn't even know what happens in his own house," said Sergio Jaramillo, the vice minister of defense. "You see that and you say, 'These people don't even talk.' You see command and control breaking down."

The FARC's communications crisis provided rescue planners with a eureka moment -- the idea for a sophisticated con that would plant a false message to prompt Gerardo Antonio Aguilar Ramírez, the head of the rebel unit guarding a group of high-profile hostages, to simply hand over his prisoners.

Aguilar would be led to believe that a relief organization sympathetic to the FARC would arrive in white helicopters, the same kind that Venezuela's government had used twice this year in hostage handovers that Chávez and FARC leaders had planned. The prisoners would then be transported to the rebel group's maximum leader, Alfonso Cano, according to the ruse.

"It was elaborate but based on a simple idea: how to get a message to them that they could not verify," Jaramillo said. "We used their communications system and put a message on the other side saying it was an order from Cano."

Intelligence officers, through rebel deserters and former hostages, learned all they could about the guerrilla guards: their anxieties, how they would likely behave. "All great intelligence operations work that way," Santos said, "using everything that's available."

The commandos who volunteered for the operation took acting classes. Two posed as a camera crew and two as rebels, and a handful of others played the role of relief workers, faking foreign accents. Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian hostage who had spent much of her life in France, recalled after being rescued how one of the men in the charade pretended to speak French to her, leaving her perplexed.

In a video shot by the commandos posing as the television crew and released by Defense Ministry officials Friday, the rebels are seen ambling up to the helicopter with their hostages.

One soldier full of emotion and unaware he is about to be rescued heads straight for the camera to complain about his plight. "I have just one thing to say," he says, nearly in tears. "I have been chained for 10 years. I am Lieutenant Raimundo Malagón of the glorious national army of Colombia, kidnapped."

Just minutes later, his anguish turns to euphoria when the helicopter takes off with the hostages, including three American Defense Department contractors held since 2003. Aguilar and another rebel commander, Alexander Farfán, were also aboard the helicopter.

A Swiss radio report, based on an unnamed source, says the FARC was paid $20 million to hand over the hostages. Defense Ministry officials in Bogota called the report absurd, and Betancourt backed them up in comments to reporters. "The joy of all of us and especially the joy of those who commanded the operation was no fiction," she said.

Jaramillo said it was important that the commandos play their roles to perfection. "If someone gets nervous," he said, "and one of the FARC people looks and says, 'Hmmm, something's wrong,' then they all get captured."

Gen. Mario Montoya, head of the army, told reporters on Friday that when the hand-over took place, the commandos put plastic handcuffs on their charges to make the operation look especially authentic to the FARC. But the maneuver was problematic.

"Why?" he said. "Because the hostages did not want to allow themselves to be handcuffed."

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