Colombian troops tricked leftist rebels to free Betancourt, 14 others (Second lead)

July 3rd, 2008 - 3:30 pm ICT by IANS  

Bogota, July 3 (IANS) In an “epic” operation, the Colombian Army have infiltrated the ranks of the country’s fiercest leftist rebels and rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others without blood-letting or a bullet fired. “The liberation of the 15 captives was the work of Colombian army intelligence personnel who managed to infiltrate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) unit guarding them,” EFE new agency quoted Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos as saying Wednesday.

“The operatives convinced the FARC squad’s chief, identified only as Comandante Cesar, that they had been sent by the guerrilla army’s new leader, Alfonso Cano, to transport the rebels and their prisoners to another location,” Santos said explaining the modus-operandi of the rescue mission dubbed as “Operation Jaque”.

Once they had coaxed Cesar and his deputy onto a helicopter with the hostages, the intelligence operatives revealed their true identities and placed the rebels in custody, the minister said, adding that planning for the mission was made more than a year ago.

Betancourt, who was kidnapped by the rebels during the course of her election campaign in 2002, arrived here Wednesday along with other other 11 captives to a jubilant welcome from their families.

Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, embraced Ingrid as she got off the Colombian air force jet that carried the freed hostages to Bogota’s Catam airbase from the southern province of Guaviare.

Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen who was the most prominent of the FARC prisoners, thanked the Colombian army for the unprecedented and daring rescue operation.

“I believe that this is a sign of peace for Colombia, that we can find peace,” Betancourt said, weeping as she made her first public statement after six years carried on Colombian radio station Caracol.

Besides Betancourt, the rescued group included three US military contractors who were captured in 2003 when their small plane went down in rebel-controlled territory.

The three US nationals were directly sent to Texas on board a US military plane. They were employees of defence contractor Northrop Grumman in Colombia.

News of the hostages’ release brought joy and jubilation both in Colombia and abroad, especially in France, home to Betancourt’s sister and her children by first husband French diplomat Fabrice Delloye.

DPA added: Colombian President Alvaro Uribe praised the army for the daring operation and said: “Everything was meticulously prepared.”

In a televised address, Uribe said the troops left some 60 rebels on the ground when the helicopter took off and the operation was completed without firing a single bullet.

“We had taken the decision not to shoot them. We were interested in rescuing the kidnapped,” he said.

Uribe said that the decision not to fire on the rebels left behind was partly to send a message to FARC, hoping that the group’s remaining hostages will be treated well.

President George W. Bush spoke with Uribe earlier in the afternoon after learning of the successful operation and to congratulate him. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States was involved in the planning of the rescue and provided support to the Colombian military, but he did not provide details of the assistance.

“This rescue was long in the planning, and we’ve been working with the Colombians for five years, since the hostages were taken, to free them from captivity,” Johndroe said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States continues to hold FARC responsible for the well-being of all remaining hostages, who should be released immediately.

“We are delighted with the safe recovery of these Americans after more than five years of captivity,” she said in a statement. “We are working now to reunite them swiftly with their families in the United States.”

FARC had planned to exchange Betancourt, the three US citizens and scores of military and police officers and politicians for FARC rebels held in prison.

The rescue of the 15 high-profile hostages has been seen as a strong blow on FARC which lost three of its seven-member leadership, including its founder and boss in March.

Earlier this year, the guerrillas unilaterally released six hostages to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been involved in trying to broker a prisoner swap between the FARC and the Uribe government.

Chavez recently called on the FARC to release all the captives “in exchange for nothing.” He also urged the group to abandon the armed struggle.

FARC founder and leader Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda died of a heart attack in late March, just weeks after rebel No. 2 Raul Reyes was killed in a Colombian raid on a clandestine camp in neighbouring Ecuador.

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