Colombian troops tricked rebels into freeing politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans in a bold but bloodless jungle rescue that dealt a severe blow to Latin America's oldest left-wing insurgency.
Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen and former presidential candidate, had been held for six years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and was its most well-known captive.
Wednesday's rescue further weakened the negotiating position of FARC rebels, who are already reeling after the death of three top leaders, and bolstered President Alvaro Uribe as he fends off a political scandal over bribery charges.
The successful mission could shore up investor confidence in US ally Uribe, who is hugely popular at home for his security drive against the FARC and his free-market policies to foster investment and economic growth.
Betancourt, 46, a mother of two, wept and prayed as she hugged relatives at a Bogota air base while the three U.S. defense contractors — Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes — were flown to the United States after five years in captivity.
“I feel like I am returning from a journey into the past,” said Betancourt, dressed in a combat jacket and appearing in decent health.
Eleven kidnapped soldiers and police were also released after the 22-minute rescue operation in the southern jungle province of Guaviare. Colombia said the mission involved infiltration of rebel leadership and soldiers acting as aid workers who pretended to transport hostages to a FARC commander's camp.
“It was an intelligence operation comparable with the greatest epics of human history, but without a drop of blood being spilled, without one weapon being fired,” Uribe said.
But the FARC, considered a terrorist organisation by US and European officials, still has scores of other hostages, some of whom have been held for a decade. It wants to swap them for jailed guerrilla fighters.
Betancourt had not been seen since a rebel video last year in which she appeared gaunt in a jungle camp. The video provoked outrage in Colombia and overseas as former hostages told how she had been chained after repeated escape attempts.
“Suicide is a daily thought, one that we postpone daily,” she told CNN. “I was very sick, I think I was on the edge of death.”
She said the hostages were forced onto a helicopter handcuffed, but were then amazed to see their captors disarmed on board and hear from an army officer, “You are free.”
The freed Americans all worked for Northrop Grumman and were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungles during a counternarcotics operation.
Hours after their release, they were flown to San Antonio and taken to a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston, an Army post.
Amanda Howes, the niece of Thomas Howes, told CNN the rescue showed “there's always hope. There's always hope for everyone.”