In Colombia, ex-hostage Betancourt's every move captures a nation

Ingrid Betancourt, right, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, at a military base in Bogota after the rescue.
Ingrid Betancourt, right, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, at a military base in Bogota after the rescue. Reina / MCT

BOGOTA, Colombia — 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 Bogota 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, the 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 with the French foreign minister, who arrived along with her children. She has dual French-Colombian citizenship.

Betancourt was rescued with three other prized hostages held by the FARC — 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. Their families were traveling to Texas to reunite with them. None made public statements.

The Colombian military freed the 15 hostages in a daring raid that relied on a Trojan horse-like maneuver to get the guerrillas to hand over their captives unknowingly.

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.

When the crew leader announced that they were from the army, "The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another," Betancourt said.

The military showed off the two guerrillas, who go by the aliases of Cesar and Gafas. The two stood silently Thursday as reporters shouted questions at them. Cesar sported a black eye from when he'd been subdued.

Gen. Mario Montoya, who heads the Colombian armed forces, said he hoped they'd go to prison for a long time. Betancourt said that Cesar 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's been trying to topple Colombia's democratically elected governments since 1964.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who's maintained ties with the FARC, on Thursday reiterated a recent call for the guerrillas to free the remaining 600 Colombian hostages and to seek peace with the government. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made a similar call.

Colombian officials braced for a possible reprisal by the weakened FARC. More than one analyst noted that an ideal opportunity would be the annual July Fourth party at the American Embassy in Bogota. Security was expected to be extremely tight.

U.S. government officials in Washington took pains Thursday to credit the Colombians with planning and executing the rescue, saying the operation showed the country's maturing counterterrorism capabilities.

Bush administration officials did say that the United States had provided intelligence support and a small amount of equipment that the Colombians sought.

On Thursday, the spotlight shone on Betancourt.

Swarmed by reporters everywhere she went, she seemed surprisingly healthy given recent reports that jungle illnesses and depression had left her close to death.

A FARC video from last October showed her sitting on a bench, seemingly so listless that she couldn't raise her eyes to the camera.

Betancourt credited William Perez, one of the other freed hostages, for nourishing her return to health.

"She was so sick that at times she couldn't even get up from her hammock and seemed unable to listen to messages from her family," Perez said. "But I was able to give her medicine and antibiotics. Everybody says that Ingrid is courageous, and it's true."

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 Perez, a former senator who was held captive with Betancourt before being freed in February.

Perez said that Betancourt had passed the time by sewing and reading a dictionary that she carried everywhere.

Perez said that Betancourt had tried to escape several times, once with him. They had a small stash of food and three fishhooks. They swam in rivers at night to avoid the FARC but allowed themselves to be found after six days because the diabetic Perez couldn't continue.

"I failed Ingrid," Perez said in an interview last month.

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'd 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'd 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."

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)

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