BOGOTA, Colombia – A young Colombian rebel who won hero status for freeing a kidnapped politician headed for France on Tuesday accompanied by his girlfriend, the world's most celebrated ex-hostage and a fat reward check.
The package deal for 28-year-old Wilson Bueno was the wish of Ingrid Betancourt, who proposed it when she arrived in Colombia a week ago for a South American tour.
The former presidential candidate, who was rescued in a bloodless July military mission, said she wanted Bueno to fly with her to Paris to send a message to leftist rebels who still hold other hostages — and to ease him into a new life.
To make that happen, authorities dropped rebellion charges against Bueno, who earned his $400,000 reward by risking his life when he dragged to freedom a badly weakened Oscar Tulio Lizcano, 62, in late October.
Colombian prosecutors said Bueno had not participated in the congressman's kidnapping eight years earlier.
Bueno's girlfriend Lilia Isabel Banol, who deserted three months ahead of him, was also to be on the Air France flight bound for Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, officials said.
Late last year, France offered political asylum to Colombian rebels who desert with hostages in tow.
Betancourt, a dual French national kidnapped in 2002, was rescued in an elaborate ruse along with three U.S. military contractors and 11 other Colombians.
"I'm going to France to get to know it. We'll have to see what awaits us there," Isaza told reporters Tuesday, wearing a track suit flanked by Colombia's defense minister and chief prosecutor. "We hope it's beautiful future."
His smiling girlfriend invited other guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the hemisphere's last remaining leftist rebel army, to follow their example.
"It's a great opportunity they're giving us to leave the country because the security in Colombia isn't very good," Banol told reporters.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Bueno, a 12-year FARC veteran who lost his left eye in combat, would receive part of his reward in a bank account in France and part would stay in Colombia for the ex-rebel's family.
In a television interview Tuesday, Bueno made it clear he had little idea of what lay ahead, saying he believed "the language would be the toughest."