BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia freed Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors from leftist guerrillas on Wednesday after military spies tricked rebels into giving them up without a single injury, the defense minister said.
The rescue is the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which considered the four hostages their most valuable bargaining chips. The FARC is already reeling from the deaths of key commanders and the loss of much of the territory it once held.
Eleven Colombian soldiers and police also were freed as their guerrilla captors gave up without a fight, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
Betancourt said the military operation was "absolutely impeccable" and took her completely by surprise.
The 46-year-old said the 15 hostages had no idea that helicopters they thought were taking them to another rebel camp were in fact piloted by military intelligence agents.
Betancourt told Colombian army radio on Wednesday that "they got us out grandly" and not a shot was fired.
In Paris, the son of the former French-Colombian presidential candidate, Lorenzo Delloye-Betancourt, called her release after six years of captivity, "if true, the most beautiful news of my life." He said he would fly to Colombia "very soon" for a reunion.
The Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — were being flown to the United States from a military base in central Colombia, Santos said.
He called the operation unprecedented and said it "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness."
The Americans, who worked for a Northrup Grumman Corp. subsidiary as Pentagon contractors, were captured a year after Betancourt when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. They were the longest-held American hostages in the world.
"We are extremely pleased to confirm the long awaited news that all three of our employees, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonzalves and Keith Stansel have been safely freed after more that five years as captives of the FARC," said Randy Belote, a spokesman Northrup Grumman told FOX News Radio. "We're really looking forward to having all three men reunited with their families back here in the United States. We're also grateful for the outstanding efforts of the Colombian and U.S. governments that resulted in the freedom of our co-workers and other Colombian citizens."
Belote said the company has kept the men on the payroll and have been working with their families during the five year period.
"We've been in constant communication and we've worked very diligently to make sure all their needs and questions have been met and answered," he said.
There was no answer Wednesday at the homes of their families in the United States.
U.S. President George W. Bush called to congratulate his ally Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and told him "he is a strong leader," according to White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe. He said Uribe in turn thanked Bush for his support, which has included billions of dollars in military aid. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he too spoke with Uribe.
Santos said the military intelligence agents infiltrated the guerrilla ranks and led the local commander in charge of the hostages, alias Cesar, to believe they were going to take them by helicopter to Alfonso Cano, the guerrillas' supreme leader.
The hostages, who had been divided in three groups, were taken to a rallying point where two helicopters piloted by Colombian military agents were waiting. The helicopters took off with the hostages, Cesar and one other rebel, and those two "were neutralized" during the flight, Santos said.
The army let the rest of the rebel group, who retreated into the jungle, escape "in hopes that they will free the rest of the hostages," Santos said. The government says the FARC still holds about 700 hostages.
He also said Colombia had infiltrated the rebels' seven-man ruling secretariat, but did not elaborate.
Santos renewed the government's offer to negotiate with the reeling rebel movement, who many believe is nearing the end of its four-decade fight. Battlefield losses and widespread desertions have cut rebel numbers in half to about 9,000.
This year, historic leader Manuel Marulanda died of a reported heart attack, and two other top commanders were killed. The rest are hunkered down in remote jungle and mountain hideouts, unable to communicate effectively.
"The government reiterates to them that if they want to enter into serious negotiations in good faith, we are offering a dignified peace," Santos said.
The rescue came as U.S. presidential candidate John McCain was visiting Colombia. When news of its success reached McCain on his campaign plane, he said he and two other U.S. senators traveling with him — Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham — had been told about it in advance by Uribe.
Betancourt, 46, was abducted in February 2002 as she was running for president. France in particular has made her captivity a national cause, as she holds dual French and Colombian citizenship.
In the five years since their abduction, their families had received only two "proof of life" videos, the latest in November.
That tape also showed the first images since 2003 of Betancourt. Along with letters and reports from other hostages, they showed a once-vibrant, confident woman slowly succumbing to Hepatitis B, tropical skin diseases and depression. One former hostage said Betancourt was kept chained to a tree after trying to escape. There was no immediate word on Betancourt's condition.
Former Betancourt aide Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped along with her boss and freed in January, called the rescue "a blessing from God."
"I think that meeting again with her children is going to be fundamental for her," Rojas told Argentina's Todo Noticias cable channel.
Her sister, Astrid Betancourt, described her "immense happiness" and relief on France's RTL radio.
Betancourt's family waged a campaign for her freedom, organizing marches and events in Colombia and France. French President Nicolas Sarkozy implored the FARC to free the ailing Betancourt and sent a mission to Colombia to try to gain access to her. He also urged Colombia's government to contact the rebels.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who shares an affinity with the leftist FARC, also tried to negotiate Betancourt's release as part of a prisoner swap.
But none of the efforts could bridge the gaps between the guerrillas and Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC and who made the group's defeat the cornerstone of his presidency.
Colombia's government even criticized the family for its efforts to raise Betancourt's public profile. With all the interest in her, officials said, Betancourt became too valuable a bargaining chip to be traded for anything less than a comprehensive deal. The family countered that its work had drawn attention to the plight of all Colombia's kidnap victims.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
FOX News Radio's Micke Majchrowitz contributed to this report.