Freed Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt said on Friday she owed her life to France as President Nicolas Sarkozy gave her a hero's welcome to Paris, turning the page on her six-year hostage ordeal.
Snatched from the grip of Marxist FARC rebels in a Colombian army operation Wednesday, along with three US hostages and 11 Colombians, Betancourt arrived at an airbase west of Paris on board a French presidential flight from Bogota.
Applause broke out as the 46-year-old Betancourt, dressed in a dark blue suit, walked down the stairs of the plane to embrace Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni, waiting to welcome her to her second home.
"Dear Ingrid, we had been waiting for this for so long," said Sarkozy, who made Betancourt's release a top priority of his presidency. "Ingrid Betancourt, welcome. France loves you."
"I have shed many tears of pain and indignation. Today I am crying with joy," Betancourt, who also has French nationality, told the crowd waiting at the Villacoublay airbase near Paris, her voice shaking with emotion.
"I have just left my family in Colombia. My loved ones. But I wanted to be with my other family. In my dear France."
"I am so happy to breathe the air of France. I owe France everything," said the former Colombian presidential candidate.
Betancourt was followed out of the plane by her daughter Melanie, 22, and son Lorenzo, 19, who were flown to Bogota from Paris on the French government aircraft to be reunited with their mother on Thursday.
She and her family left the airbase in a convoy with Sarkozy and his wife, headed for the presidential palace.
Paris is where Betancourt grew up, studied and raised her family. Her children had waged a relentless campaign for their mother's release, making her a cause celebre in France.
"I owe my life to France. If France hadn't fought for me, I wouldn't be here making this extraordinary journey," she told reporters on the plane earlier.
Betancourt said in a radio interview late Thursday she had been chained up night and day for three years by her rebel captors, with only her Catholic faith as a solace.
"I was in chains all the time, 24 hours a day, for three years," she told Europe 1 radio. "I tried to wear those chains... with dignity, even if I felt that it was unbearable."
Asked whether she was tortured, she replied "Yes, yes." She said she saw her captors lapsing into "diabolical behaviour."
"It was so monstrous that I think they themselves were disgusted.
"I think you need tremendous spirituality to stop yourself falling into the abyss," she said.
A fervent Catholic who called her release a "miracle of the Virgin Mary," Betancourt has also been invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI next week. "It is a meeting that one cannot pass up," she told AFP.
Sarkozy's personal doctor, travelling on the flight, said her state of health was "satisfactory," according to a member of the delgation, but she was to undergo in-depth medical examinations once in Paris.
Video footage earlier this year showed Betancourt looking frail and gaunt and she was reported to be suffering from a host of ailments including hepatitis.
Betancourt has urged Colombia and the international community to keep working to free the hundreds of other hostages still held by Colombia's FARC rebels, Latin America's most powerful left-wing insurgency.
The cunning rescue mission was a huge triumph in Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's long battle against the leftist rebel army.
In the humbled rebels' first reaction since the rescue, a news outlet close to FARC said they would be open to peace talks with the Uribe government.
"Definitely the future of Colombia cannot be civil war," read the statement on the pro-rebel Anncol news agency website, which urged FARC to "not waste a historic opportunity."