'Nirvana, paradise' as Betancourt reunites with her kids
Rescued hostage Ingrid Betancourt hugged her children for the first time in six years Thursday at a teary reunion in Colombia's capital, Bogota.
Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, raced up the stairs toward the door of a French government plane and threw her arms around her children, Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22, who arrived on a flight from Paris.
"Nirvana, paradise — that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, told reporters as she fought back tears and her son bent over to kiss her.
"The last time I saw my son, Lorenzo was a little kid and I could carry him around," she said. "I told them, they're going to have to put up with me now, because I'm going to be stuck to them like chewing gum."
Betancourt and three Americans were among a group of 15 hostages freed when Colombian military agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) duped the rebel group Wednesday.
Betancourt plans to fly to France to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy's office said Betancourt would arrive in Paris on Friday.
French people 'our support, our light'
"I want to tell President Sarkozy — and through him all the French people — that they were our support, our light," Betancourt, who grew up in Paris, said in an interview with the Colombian television station RCN early Thursday. "It's time for me to thank the French, to tell them I admire them, that I feel proud to be French as well."
France played a key role in raising awareness about Betancourt's plight and sent a humanitarian mission in a failed rescue attempt earlier this year.
She had become a cause célèbre across Europe, and Sarkozy had made Betancourt's liberation a priority of state.
"The first words I say to her will be how happy we are," Sarkozy said in a statement issued late Wednesday night. He also praised the Colombian government and military for its successful mission.
Betancourt forgives her captors
Betancourt, 46, was captured by rebels in 2002 while campaigning in a dangerous part of the country where, as a high-profile politician, she had been warned not to go.
"I feel very guilty for taking a decision that has brought my family so much suffering, including the death of my father," she said, fighting back tears. "But during all these years, I've come to the conclusion this was my destiny."
Betancourt looked healthy on Wednesday as she disembarked from a plane at a Bogota airport wearing military fatigues and a floppy camouflage hat.
She broke into tears upon arrival and later, as she stood by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during a news conference.
"They used the pain of our families to pressure the entire world," she said, adding an appeal for FARC to release an estimated 700 hostages still held captive.
But Betancourt said she forgives her rebel captors. "Nobody is at fault."
Will talk to family about political future
She thanked Uribe, whom she was running against when she was kidnapped, and said she would talk to her children and mother before deciding on her political future.
"Do I still hope to serve Colombia as president?… Only God knows. At this moment, I just want to feel like one more Colombian soldier serving the country."
Recounting details of the rescue, Betancourt said hostages were told by rebels they were being taken to speak to a FARC commander at another guerrilla camp and loaded onto two helicopters.
She didn't know the helicopters were actually piloted by Colombian military agents. When the agents told the hostages they were national army soldiers in disguise, Betancourt said the "helicopter almost fell" as the hostages began jumping for joy.
"God, this is a miracle," Betancourt exclaimed several hours after landing in Bogota. "It was an extraordinary symphony in which everything went perfectly."
Two rebels were in custody and 58 others were allowed to escape as a goodwill gesture, said Gen. Freddy Padilla, the armed forces commander.
Amanda Howes, a niece of one of the freed U.S. hostages, echoed Betancourt, saying the rescue "redefines the word miracle."
Americans to undergo medical tests
The three U.S. military contractors landed on home soil at an American air force base around 11 p.m. local time Wednesday, then quietly boarded helicopters waiting to take them to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where they underwent tests Thursday.
Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell had been held by FARC since their drug-surveillance plane went down in a rebel-held part of the jungle in February 2003. The three were held captive longer than any other American, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
"I will tell you that they greeted me with a strong handshake and clear eyes and an incredible smile," said Maj. Gen. Keith Huber, commanding general of U.S. Army South, which is responsible for army operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The men's families were arriving in San Antonio throughout the day Thursday, said Katie Lamb, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman.
Col. Jackie Hayes, the hospital's chief of pulmonary and critical care, said Thursday they wanted to rule out any infectious diseases.
"I am happy to report that they are all in very good physical condition — very strong," Hayes said. "The results of the tests are pending at this point and time but everything really looks well. They are in great spirits and we're continuing the medical evaluation process."
The three Americans had appeared healthy in videos aired on Colombian TV, but officials said two of the three are suffering from the jungle malady leishmaniasis, caused by protozoan parasites.
George Gonsalves said he was mowing his yard when his neighbour told him the news about the release of his son and the others.
"I didn't know how to stop my lawnmower," he said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."
Colombian spies also freed 11 Colombian police and soldiers from the FARC guerillas.
U.S., Colombia worked together on mission
The rescue mission dealt a blow to the decades-old rebel group that had hoped to release the four high-profile hostages in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned rebels.
A U.S. official, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said American and Colombian governments had learned of the hostages' location "any number of times" and planned several rescue missions during the past five years, but the difficulty of getting them out alive stopped any attempts.
U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said U.S. and Colombian forces co-operated closely on the mission, sharing intelligence, equipment and training advice.
FARC was established in the 1960s as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party and later became involved in the cocaine trade as a means of raising funds.
The Colombian government estimates the rebel 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.
- When asked whether she intends to continue in politics, Ingrid Betancourt did not respond, "I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president," as originally reported by the Associated Press. In fact, she said, "Do I still hope to serve Columbia as president? … Only God knows." She said she would talk to her family before making the decision.Jul 04, 2008 3:29 PM ET
With files from the Associated Press