Former hostage enjoys dizzying day of freedom

Ingrid Betancourt went from jungle captive to national heroine within a dizzying 24 hours, as Colombians hailed the newly freed hostage Thursday for her courage, and her every public move was carried live on television.

After six years as a prisoner of Colombian rebels, the former senator and presidential candidate rushed onto the plane that brought her children from France and threw her arms around Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22.

“They're my babies. They're my pride and my reason for living, my light, my moon, my stars,” Betancourt said, holding their heads close as they planted kisses on her cheeks.

Betancourt, 46, visited the church that holds the remains of her father, who died a month after she was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in its Spanish initials.

“It was a very emotional visit,” she said. “I told him that I was free and that he can now rest in peace.”

While the three Americans rescued with Betancourt stayed out of sight in a military hospital in Texas, television cameras followed Betancourt everywhere, and adoring Colombians gathered in streets to shower her with applause.

She was expected to recuperate from her ordeal by flying to France today with the French foreign minister, who arrived along with her children. She has dual French-Colombian citizenship.

The Americans – Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell – were flown to a military base in San Antonio on Thursday. Doctors said they were in good condition and were undergoing tests. Their families were traveling to Texas to reunite with them. None made public statements.

Eleven Colombian soldiers and policemen who'd been held captive were also freed.

Wednesday's rescue was the latest and most serious blow suffered by FARC, Latin America's biggest guerrilla group. It has been trying to topple Colombia's democratically elected governments since 1964.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has maintained ties with FARC, on Thursday reiterated a recent call for the guerrillas to free the remaining 600 Colombian hostages and to seek peace with the government. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made a similar call.

Colombian officials braced for a possible reprisal by the weakened FARC. More than one analyst noted that an ideal opportunity would be the annual July Fourth party at the American Embassy in Bogota. Security was expected to be extremely tight.

U.S. government officials in Washington took pains Thursday to credit the Colombians with planning and executing the rescue, saying the operation showed the country's maturing counterterrorism capabilities.

Bush administration officials did say that the United States had provided intelligence support and a small amount of equipment that the Colombians sought.

On Thursday, the spotlight shone on Betancourt.

Swarmed by reporters everywhere she went, she seemed surprisingly healthy, given recent reports that jungle illnesses and depression had left her close to death.

A FARC video from last October showed her sitting on a bench, seemingly so listless that she couldn't raise her eyes to the camera.

Betancourt credited William Perez, one of the other freed hostages, for nourishing her return to health.

“She was so sick that at times she couldn't even get up from her hammock and seemed unable to listen to messages from her family,” Perez said. “But I was able to give her medicine and antibiotics. Everybody says that Ingrid is courageous, and it's true.”

Like the other captives, Betancourt spent most of her days chained around the neck tied to a tree, with only 30 to 60 minutes a day to move about freely under the guerrillas' watch, said Luis Eladio Perez, a former senator who was held captive with Betancourt before being freed in February.

Luis Eladio Perez said that Betancourt had passed the time by sewing and reading a dictionary that she carried everywhere.

He said that Betancourt had tried to escape several times, once with him. They had a small stash of food and three fishhooks. They swam in rivers at night to avoid FARC but allowed themselves to be found after six days.

“I failed Ingrid,” Luis Eladio Perez said in an interview last month. For hours after her release Wednesday, Betancourt kept wearing the camouflage jacket and rubber boots that had been part of her jungle outfit.

But on Thursday she seemed to accept that she was a captive no more. She wore a black pantsuit and looked more like the chic woman who had grown up in France before becoming a crusading anti-corruption senator back in Colombia.

She was kidnapped in 2002 while driving to campaign in a jungle town that she had been told was too risky to visit.

She was a longshot in the presidential election, eventually won by Alvaro Uribe, who approved the raid that secured her freedom.

Asked Thursday whether she planned to run for president again, Betancourt said that idea “seemed far away from my thoughts.” The Associated Press contributed.