Betancourt Returns to a Hero's Welcome in France

Former hostage Ingrid Betancourt arrived in France to a hero's welcome Friday after six years being held by leftist rebels in the Colombian jungle.

Betancourt said she "cried a lot during this time from pain and indignation," Today, she said, "I cry with joy."

"It's a very, very moving moment for me: Breathing the air of France, being with you," Betancourt told supporters and reporters gathered on the windswept tarmac. "France is my home and you are my family."

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President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy greeted the French-Colombian politician with hugs, kisses and broad smiles at the Villacoublay air base southwest of Paris. The welcome was shown live on French television.

Betancourt's children and other family members also descended from the French government plane and joined their mother and the presidential couple on the tarmac.

Sarkozy said Betancourt's rescue sends a message to people in difficult situations that "it's worth it to fight. There is no such thing as inevitability."

"All those who suffer, like you, throughout the world should know that ... there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said in greeeting her.

"You are free, radiant, with your life ahead of you and surrounded by your family," he said.

Click here for Steve Harrigan's blog from Colombia.

Betancourt, her family and supporters then went to a party at the presidential palace. Hundreds of people, some carrying Colombian or French flags and many with cameras, lined up behind police barriers around the Elysee palace in hopes of getting a glimpse of her.

Betancourt was campaigning for Colombia's presidency when she was kidnapped in 2002. She became a cause celebre in France, with her portrait hung on town halls and constant street rallies by supporters.

She was freed Wednesday in a daring Colombian operation involving military spies who tricked FARC rebels into handing over Betancourt and 14 other hostages without firing a shot.

Betancourt spent much of her childhood here and attended university at Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Her children Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19, grew up in Paris during her captivity.

Betancourt was reunited with her children in Colombia on Thursday. Interviewed by Europe-1 radio before her arrival in France, said she was proud of how her children had forged "extraordinary characters" in her absence.

She recalled humiliating treatment by the FARC, saying she had to 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," she said.

"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 described her illnesses as "a series of problems that piled on top of each other, I couldn't nourish myself, I visibly lost weight, I lost the capacity to move, I was prostrated in my hammock, I had trouble drinking."

She said she reached "a truly critical situation" but was helped by a male nurse who helped get her medicine.

Sarkozy made freeing Betancourt a priority the night he was elected France's president in May 2007. The previous government of Jacques Chirac also worked for her release, and then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is a longtime friend of Betancourt's.

Betancourt's release was a big image boost for Sarkozy, with even his rivals acknowledging that his diplomatic efforts kept up the pressure on Colombia to find ways to get her released.

But Sarkozy had been pushing for negotiations with the FARC, not a military operation. And France had no role in the operation to free her.

Sarkozy's closest aide, Elysee chief of staff Claude Gueant, acknowledged Thursday that France learned of Betancourt's release just 15 minutes before Colombian media broke the news.

From the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI sent word Friday that he would be happy to meet with Betancourt as soon as his schedule permits. Earlier, he had sent a telegram expressing his delight that she was freed. He had met with Betancourt's mother at the Vatican in February.