Return to France stirs tears of joy

Arriving to a hero's welcome in France, Ingrid Betancourt said Friday that she cried a lot during her six years as a prisoner in the Colombian jungle. Today, she said, “I cry with joy.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife met the French-Colombian politician on the tarmac of an air base southwest of Paris, showering her with hugs, kisses and smiles.

Betancourt, 46, became a cause celebre in France after her abduction in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency. During her captivity by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, supporters in France held candlelight vigils and benefit concerts to attract world attention to her plight.

Her release in an ingenious Colombian military operation Wednesday was greeted with a flood of enthusiasm. Hundreds of people, some waving Colombian or French flags, many with cameras, lined up Friday behind police barriers around Paris' Elysee presidential palace in hopes of catching a glimpse of her.

“France is my home and you are my family,” Betancourt said in an address from the wind-swept runway broadcast live on French television.

Addressing the French people, she said their support and mobilization in her favor “saved my life.”

Sarkozy praised Betancourt as a beacon of hope for people in dire situations.

“All those, like you, who suffer throughout the world should know that … there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said the French leader, flanked by his wife, former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Speaking later at a reception in a gilded hall at the presidential palace, Betancourt urged Sarkozy to keep fighting for the liberation of the hostages still in the FARC's hands, estimated by Colombia's government to number about 700.

“I'm sorry to ask you this like this, in public,” she told Sarkozy as a crowd of hundreds cheered and cameras flashed. “But we still need you.

“We cannot leave them (the hostages) where they are. They are suffering; they are alone.”

The rescue mission – in which a total of 15 hostages were spirited to freedom without a shot being fired – was a major victory in the Colombian government's fight against the FARC, and Betancourt appealed to the rebels to “be good losers.”

She said she expects any future efforts to win the release of hostages to be even more difficult.

Asked about a Swiss radio report that a ransom was paid to the rebels for freeing her and the other hostages and that the release was staged, Betancourt said she couldn't doubt the authenticity of what she lived through.

“Honestly, in my heart, I don't think I can be easily duped,” she said.

She described the memory of her defeated captor, “this man hunched on the ground, eyes blindfolded, hands behind his back, hands and feet tied. I don't think someone who had received a ransom could have had such an expression.”

Senior Colombian military officials also denied a ransom was paid.

Betancourt described her years in the jungle, which she called “an absolutely hostile world, where everything is your enemy, everything is dangerous, everything is against you.”

She said she will undergo medical exams today at Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris. Betancourt already had a preliminary exam aboard the French government plane that flew her to Paris, but because she went through ill spells during her captivity, she said she wants a thorough checkup.

Betancourt said dreams of getting back to her family kept her going through the long ordeal. She said she wants to live with her children, Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19, who reached adulthood in Paris during her captivity.

Betancourt credited her religious faith with helping her to survive her captivity.