BOGOTA, Colombia – Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt embraced her children for the first time in six years Thursday, saying the thought of them helped her stay alive until a daring rescue plucked her and 14 other hostages from the jungle.
"Nirvana, paradise — that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt said, fighting back tears as her son reached over to kiss her. "It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle."
Betancourt raced to the stairway of the French government plane that flew her children to Bogota, throwing her arms around Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22.
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"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, 46, was airlifted to freedom Wednesday in an audacious operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over their most prized hostages — including three U.S. military contractors — without firing a shot.
The stunning caper involved months of intelligence gathering, dozens of helicopters on standby and a strong dose of deceit: The rebels shoved the captives, their hands bound, onto a white unmarked Mi-17 helicopter, believing they were being transferred to another guerrilla camp.
Looking at helicopter's crew, some wearing Che Guevara shirts, Betancourt reasoned they weren't aid workers, as she'd expected — but rebels. This was just another indignity — the helicopter "had no flag, no insignia." Angry and upset, she refused a coat they offered as they told her she was going to a colder climate.
But not long after the group was airborne, Betancourt turned around and saw the local commander, alias Cesar, a man who had tormented her for four years, blindfolded and stripped naked on the floor.
Then came the unbelievable words: "We're the national army," said one of the crewmen. "You're free."
The helicopter crew were soldiers in disguise. Cesar and the other guerrilla aboard had been persuaded to hand over their pistols, then overpowered.
"The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another," Betancourt said.
The mission — in which many military intelligence agents infiltrated the top ranks of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — snatched from the four foreigners who were its greatest bargaining chips, as well as 11 Colombian soldiers and police.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said it "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness." He also acknowledged the risks: "If this had failed, I would have had to resign," he told Caracol Radio on Thursday.
It was the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old FARC, which is already reeling from the recent deaths of key commanders and thousands of defections after withering pressure from Colombia's U.S.-trained and advised armed forces.
Colombia could be "at the end of the end" of its long civil conflict, armed forces chief Freddy Padilla told Caracol Radio Thursday. "We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
But he warned that, even now, "the FARC has an enormous capacity for terrorism" and said, "the most difficult moments are yet to come."
In an apparently unrelated release, FARC guerrillas on Thursday freed Norwegian-Colombian hostage Alf Onshuus Nino, a 31-year-old mathematics teacher at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Norway's foreign ministry announced. Spokeswoman Kristin Melsom had no details about his release, but said it was unrelated to Wednesday's rescue.
Bjoern Omdal Onshuus, a relative, told Norwegian radio that a ransom had been paid. Norwegian news media earlier had reported the FARC was demanding 1 million kroner (US$200,000) for his release.
Many relatives of hostages have opposed rescue attempts, mindful of a botched 2003 operation in which rebels killed 10 hostages, including a former defense minister, when they heard helicopters approach. In Wednesday's operation, there were no such mistakes.
Through orders they believed came from top rebels, the hostages' handlers had maneuvered three separate groups of hostages to a rendezvous point in eastern Colombia's wilds for Wednesday's helicopter pickup.
"The helicopter was on the ground for 22 minutes," said army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, "the longest minutes of my life."
The agents had led Cesar to believe he was taking them to supreme rebel leader Alfonso Cano to discuss a possible hostage swap. A French and Swiss envoy was reported in the country seeking a meeting with Cano, so the operation's timing was perfect.
"It was an extraordinary symphony in which everything went perfectly," Betancourt said.
She appeared thin but surprisingly healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace.
A flight carrying the Americans — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — landed in Texas late Wednesday after being flown there directly. They were to reunite with their families and undergo tests and treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said the Americans were healthy and "very, very happy" but two suffered from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and were "looking forward to modern medical treatment."
President Alvaro Uribe, in a celebratory news conference flanked by the freed Colombian hostages, said he isn't interested in "spilling blood" and that he wants the FARC to know he seeks "a path to peace, total peace."
Although only Colombians were directly involved in the rescue, Brownfield said "close" American cooperation included intelligence, equipment and "training advice."
"The rescue was long in the planning. We've been working with them for a long time. I'm not able to go into many specifics," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Thursday in Washington.
The two rebels overpowered on the helicopters will face justice, officials said. But the 58 left behind on the ground were allowed to escape as a goodwill gesture, Padilla said.
"If I had given the order to fire on them they would almost certainly all have been killed," he said. Another 39 helicopters had been standing by, prepared to encircle the rebels and hostages if the rescue failed, Santos said.
Betancourt was abducted in February 2002 while she was campaigning for president. The Americans were captured a year later when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. Some of the others had been held for a dozen years.
Betancourt, a dual French national who grew up in Paris, had become a cause celebre across Europe. The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt's liberation a priority of state, said Betancourt was expected to arrive in France on Friday.
Betancourt thanked Uribe, against whom she was running when she was kidnapped, and said he "has been a very good president."
However, she said, "I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president."