Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, right, is welcomed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at Villacoublay air base outside Paris on Friday. ((Michel Spingler/Associated Press))

Rescued hostage Ingrid Betancourt landed in France on Friday, taking her first steps on French soil since being held captive for more than six years in the Colombian jungle.

"I cried a great deal during [my captivity] from pain and indignation, but today, I cry with joy," she told the cheering crowds of supporters who gathered at a military airport near Paris to greet her.

"It's a very, very moving moment for me — breathing the air of France, being with you. France is my home and you are my family."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, hugged and kissed Betancourt when she stepped off the plane.

Sarkozy then invited Betancourt, 46, and her children to a reception at the lavish Élysée Palace, the official presidential residence in the heart of the city. Hundreds of people, some carrying Colombian or French flags and many with cameras, lined up behind police barriers around the palace in hopes of getting a glimpse of her.

Betancourt, who grew up in Paris, became a cause célèbre in France during her captivity. Her portrait hung in town hall buildings, while her supporters often rallied in the streets, calling for her release. When Sarkozy was elected a year ago, he vowed to make Betancourt's freedom a priority.

Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, was running for president of Colombia when she was captured by insurgents in 2002. She and 14 other hostages were rescued Wednesday by a group of Colombian military agents who posed as members of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC.

Hostages had 'no hope'

Speaking to reporters after her arrival on Friday, Betancourt pleaded for the safe return of the many hostages left behind. It is estimated FARC is holding upwards of 700 hostages in the jungle, many of whom Betancourt met.

"I spent [nearly] seven years with other human beings who had no hope," she said. "When I spoke to them, I always got this sense of having missed all the opportunities that usually a life offers us."

She said she taught her fellow hostages French and would tell them about France and how it symbolizes freedom, liberty and brotherhood. She admitted these ideas are clichés.

"But for us in the jungle, these words meant so much," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "They were very powerful words and I spoke to them all the time about France because I wanted them to think about something else so that they would stop thinking about suicide."

Betancourt said France must get involved in negotiating the release of other hostages, much as the country actively called for her release. She urged Sarkozy to go to Colombia again, speak to President Alvaro Uribe and perhaps have French delegates attempt to start talks with FARC.

"I still need your help because we cannot leave them there," she said, turning directly to Sarkozy as they held their joint news conference. "We have to carry on thinking about how we can organize ourselves, how we can do things to help those still kept in captivity."

In chains for 3 years


Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt embraces her son Lorenzo, right, and daughter Mélanie in Bogota on Thursday. ((Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press))

On Thursday, Betancourt's two children flew to Bogota for an emotional reunion with their mother, all three of them crying as they hugged each other for the first time in six years. Mélanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19, were cared for by their father, Betancourt's ex-husband, during the years their mother was away.

Betancourt, who remarried, said she endured humiliating treatment at the hands of her captors, who at one time made her wear chains 24 hours a day for three years.

"When you have a chain around your neck, you have to keep your head down and try to accept your fate without succumbing entirely to humiliation, without forgetting who you are," Betancourt told Europe-1 radio.

"I reached a moment where I understood that death was a possibility," she said in another interview with France-2 television. "I had seen my companions die. I knew that death arrives very, very quickly in the jungle."

Betancourt said she battled illness in captivity and couldn't properly nourish herself. She lost weight and at times had difficulty swallowing and moving.

'Not a single foreigner participated'

Video footage of the rescue operation, released Friday, showed the grim-faced hostages light up with joy at the news that the helicopter they were riding in was being commandeered by the Colombian military, which shot the video.

Betancourt was shown on the film crying and hugging William Perez, an army corporal and fellow hostage she has credited for nursing her through her jungle illnesses.

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that among the soldiers on the helicopter — presented as members of an unnamed international humanitarian group — were a nurse, a doctor and agents posing as an Italian, an Australian, an Arab and a Caribbean.

He denied that international forces were part of the operation, saying "not a single foreigner participated."

Santos said American authorities were notified of the operation 10 days before it happened, as part of an agreement between the two countries' presidents not to take action without Washington's agreement.

FARC was established in the 1960s as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The militant group later became involved in the cocaine trade as a means of raising funds.

The Colombian government estimates the group has between 6,000 and 8,000 armed members and a military presence in 15 to 20 per cent of the country, particularly remote jungle and mountain areas.

Some estimates put the number of FARC fighters at as many as 18,000. The governments of Canada, the United States and the European Union all consider the organization a terrorist group.

With files from the Associated Press