Hostages rescued after years of jungle captivity

Three U.S. defense contractors held since 2003 by guerillas in steamy jungle captivity were choppered to freedom in Cartagena, it was announced Wednesday, in a daring rescue operation that resembled a Hollywood action film.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced Wednesday afternoon that the nation's special forces had rescued 15 hostages, including the three U.S. citizens and a former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whose captivity had become an international cause celebre.

Freed alongside Betancourt, whose liberation had been sought by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell – contractors working for a subsidiary of defense titan Northrop Grumman.

They'd been held since their Cessna crashed during an anti-drug mission in remote Colombian guerrilla territory on Feb. 13, 2003. Santos pronounced all three in good health. A fourth American, Thomas John Janis, was killed trying to elude capture after the 2003 crash.

Betancourt, who was seized on the campaign trail six years ago, appeared thin but healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace. She said she still aspires to the presidency.

“God, this is a miracle,” Betancourt said. “Such a perfect operation is unprecedented.”

The office of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said late Wednesday that the Americans were on their way to the United States. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the U.S. was aware of the operation in advance and supported it.

The hostages were held by the FARC, a Marxist group that funds itself by protecting cocaine production and has waged a 44-year war to topple Colombia's democratically elected governments.

“This is a tough and irreversible blow to the morale of the FARC, and I think that from now on, their self-esteem and their pretensions of coercing the Colombian government will be seriously affected,” said Alfredo Rangel, a political analyst and director of the Foundation for Security and Democracy in Colombia.

The rescue could prove the death knell for the FARC, suggested Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami.

“The FARC is in a serious process of deterioration. Its ability to function as a guerrilla or revolutionary group is increasingly in doubt,” he said.

Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe was elected on a platform of defeating the rebel group, which has in recent years come to be seen more as a criminal organization than a guerrilla movement.

The Bush administration placed the FARC on the list of terrorist organizations.

“It's an end to a nightmare,” Cesar Gaviria, a former Colombian president, told local television, congratulating Uribe.

Details of the hostage rescue were the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Defense Minister Santos said that intelligence forces infiltrated the FARC high command and tricked them into grouping together three groups of hostages at a central meeting point.

The pretext was that an international nonprofit group would take them by helicopter to the FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano.

Instead, Colombian commandos were aboard the helicopters and forced the hostages' kidnappers to surrender while in flight without firing a shot. The hostages were liberated in the central Colombian state of Guaviare south of Bogota.

Speaking later on national television, Betancourt described how two guerrillas accompanied them on the helicopter but were overpowered during the flight. A man then announced: “We're from the army!”

“We jumped up, yelled and hugged,” Betancourt said. “We couldn't believe it!

Betancourt had been kidnapped in 2002 when she was running for president and was widely seen as the FARC's most valuable bargaining chip. The most recent video of her from the jungle showed her thin and wan, leading to fears that she could die unless freed this year.

Betancourt, wearing an army camouflage vest, was mobbed by her husband and mother as she stepped off a plane and onto the tarmac.

”It's the hug that her mother has wanted to give her for six years,“ a TV announcer narrated. She and the other freed Colombian hostages linked arms for waiting photographers. The Associated Press contributed.