Miami Herald / McClatchy News Service
July 04, 2008
Freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt had an emotional reunion with her 19-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter, hugging and kissing them for the first time in six years.
BOGOTA -- Ingrid Betancourt went from jungle captive to national heroine within a dizzying 24 hours, as Colombians hailed the newly freed hostage Thursday for her courage and her every public move was carried live on television.
Betancourt, a 46-year-old former senator and presidential candidate, had an emotional reunion with her 19-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter Thursday.
She hugged and kissed them for the first time since she was kidnapped more than six years ago, moments after they arrived in Bogotá from France, where they live with her ex-husband.
''Nirvana, paradise -- that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment,'' Betancourt said with her children by her side. ``It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle.''
Betancourt also visited the church that holds the remains of her father, who died a month after she was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC in its Spanish initials.
''It was a very emotional visit,'' she said. ``I told him that I was free and that he can now rest in peace.''
Betancourt was expected to recuperate from her ordeal by flying to France on Friday. She has dual French-Colombian citizenship.
Betancourt was rescued along with three U.S. military contractors -- kidnapped in 2003 -- and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen.
The Americans -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- were flown to a military base in San Antonio on Thursday. Military doctors said they were in good condition and were undergoing tests.
The Colombian military freed the 15 hostages in a daring raid that relied on a Trojan horse-like maneuver to get the guerrillas to unknowingly hand over the captives.
Six commandos disguised as international aid workers landed in a helicopter on a supposed humanitarian mission.
They picked up the hostages and two guerrillas, then overpowered the guerrillas once airborne.
The military showed off the two guerrillas, who go by the aliases of César and Gafas. The two stood silently Thursday as reporters shouted questions at them.
César sported a black eye from when he had been subdued.
Gen. Mario Montoya, who heads the Colombian military, said he hoped they would go to prison for a long time. Betancourt said that César had been particularly cruel.
Wednesday's rescue was the latest and most serious blow suffered by the FARC, Latin America's biggest guerrilla group.
It has been trying to topple Colombia's government since 1964.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who's maintained ties with the FARC and helped broker a release of FARC hostages earlier this year, on Thursday broke his silence over the rescue to express ''joy'' and ''jubilation'' over the freed hostages.
Some independent commentators, however, argued that the rescue was a setback for Chávez, who was seeking to achieve Betancourt's freedom by negotiation, and thereby advance his revolutionary agenda in the region.
Speaking at a conference on Venezuela's Margarita Island, Chávez reiterated his offer of help in ''freeing every last hostage'' and achieving a lasting peace in Colombia.
But his role now looks increasingly irrelevant.
IMPACT ON CHAVEZ
Last year, Chávez was charged by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with facilitating a hostage deal, but this agreement was brought to an abrupt end in November after Uribe accused him of breaking the rules by directly contacting a Colombian general.
The incident led to the most serious crisis between the two countries in many years, but Chávez continued to negotiate with the FARC, obtaining the release of several hostages earlier this year.
Diplomatic relations were further strained after the Colombian army obtained a large cache of computer files in a raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador in early March.
The files pointed to an alliance between Chávez and the FARC and suggested the bid for belligerent status was a deal between the two.
Some see the about-turn on the guerrillas as a product of the Venezuelan president's need to put some distance between them because of the damage to his reputation caused by leaks from the computer files.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, meanwhile, also called for the release of remaining hostages while Colombian officials braced for a possible reprisal by the weakened FARC.
BOUND WITH CHAINS
Like the other captives, Betancourt spent most of her days chained around the neck tied to a tree, with only 30 to 60 minutes a day to move about freely under the guerrillas' watch, said Luis Eladio Pérez, a former senator who was held captive with Betancourt before being freed in February.
For hours after her release Wednesday, Betancourt kept wearing the camouflage jacket and rubber boots that had been part of her jungle outfit.
But on Thursday she seemed to accept that she was a captive no more. She wore a black pantsuit and looked more like the chic woman who had grown up in France before becoming a crusading anti-corruption senator back in Colombia.
She was kidnapped in 2002 while driving to campaign in a jungle town that she had been told was too risky to visit.
She was a long shot in the presidential election, eventually won by Alvaro Uribe, who approved the raid that secured her freedom.
Asked Thursday whether she planned to run for president again, Betancourt said that idea ``seemed far away from my thoughts.''
McClatchy correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington and special correspondent Phil Gunson in Caracas contributed to this report.