COLOMBIA: Betancourt Freed in Military Intelligence Operation

Global Geopolitics Net / IPS
Friday, July 04, 2008

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2008.

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 3 (IPS) - Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian police officers and soldiers held hostage by the guerrillas were rescued Wednesday in a military intelligence operation.

They were held for between five and 10 years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which hoped to exchange them for imprisoned guerrillas.

In addition to Betancourt, who has dual French and Colombian nationality, the released hostages were Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves of the United States, and Colombian army officers and noncommissioned officers Juan Carlos Bermeo, Raimundo Malagón, José Ricardo Marulanda, William Pérez, Erasmo Romero, José Miguel Arteaga and Armando Flórez.

Also rescued were police officers Julio Buitrago, Armando Castellanos, Vaney Rodríguez and John Jairo Durán.

On streets and highways throughout Colombia, cars, trucks and buses sounded their horns in celebration.

Dressed in a camouflage jacket, rubber boots and black sports pants, and holding a wooden rosary tightly in her left hand, Ingrid Betancourt landed at 17:10 local time at the Catam de Bogotá military airport, and hugged her mother Yolanda Pulecio and her husband Juan Carlos Lecompte.

Betancourt was escorted by Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos as she disembarked from the air force plane that brought her from the southern Guaviare province.

”This unprecedented operation was a global first,” said Santos at the start of the press conference. ”It was a movie-style rescue that freed 15 people who had been tortured and had suffered for years.”

”Comrades of ours, serving in the army or the national police, have been held hostage for nearly 11 years,” said armed forces commander General Freddy Padilla.

They were ”captured but never forgotten. It has been an obsession, a commitment, to bring these people back safe and sound,” the general said.

He stated that on a number of opportunities the hostages could have been rescued, ”and they weren't.” Instead, they waited for an operation that would free them ”without firing a single shot, and get them out absolutely safe and sound, without a scratch.”

Betancourt expressed her thanks ”to God first of all, and secondly to all of you, who felt compassion for those of us who had been kidnapped, who refused to believe that the only solution was to sit and wait,” and then she spoke briefly in French.

She thanked the world, and ”the army of my country Colombia. Thank you for the impeccable operation, the operation was perfect.”

After remembering those who died in previous rescue attempts, the former presidential candidate said that ”this is such a devastating blow for the FARC that it is very easy to say that they are defeated.”

Betancourt spoke of the FARC's shortages of food and equipment over the past year, indicating serious logistical problems. ”They may be in difficulties, at least that is what we saw.”

She said that for years she felt guilty about having travelled to the area where she was taken hostage, just three days after peace talks had broken off between the government and the guerrillas in February 2002, and about the intense pain she had caused her family. But she added that she ”would do it all over again,” because she had gone there to be with her supporters. She had been campaigning in an area under guerrilla control.

”I've earned a PhD on the FARC, which I hope will be useful for those of us who want to help solve this,” she said in reference to Colombia's armed conflict.

One of the most devastating blows against the FARC was the constitutional amendment allowing presidents to be reelected to a second consecutive term, Betancourt said at the Bogotá military airport. The rebel group, which was founded in 1964, was banking on a change of policy from war to peace talks and back again, every four years.

When Uribe was reelected, they got no respite. Although she did not agree with everything Uribe has done, she said reelection has been a good thing for Colombia, and that he ”has been a very good president.”

”Thank God” that Uribe became president rather than her, Betancourt said, adding that she ”wants to be just another Colombian soldier at the service of her country.”

Betancourt said that the mediation efforts made by Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador were ”very important,” and described them as ”allies,” but added that such mediation should be conditioned by respect for Colombian democracy, as Colombians ”elected Uribe, not the FARC.”

When the national news agency Colprensa asked Betancourt about the effect on the FARC of the death from natural causes in March of its historic commander Manuel Marulanda, the defence ninister took the microphone and answered himself instead.

He gave a rundown of the deaths of top FARC leaders over the past year, and the increased number of desertions according to official figures, and repeated the offer of a ”generous hand” for making peace. Otherwise, he said, the ”military hand” would be all they would get.

”We want peace by hook or by crook, and peace will come to Colombia,” Santos said.

At the time of the televised broadcast of Betancourt's first press conference after nearly six and a half years in captivity, the streets of the Colombian capital were deserted.

But her first declarations as a free woman were not made in Catam, to reporters from around the world, but earlier on, to the armed forces radio, often the only station received in the remote jungle areas held by the guerrillas.

In that first interview, she told the story of her rescue by a military intelligence operation disguised as a humanitarian mission. The operation took place a week after a visit by European emissaries, who have spent years working for negotiations with the FARC, with the blessing of the Colombian government.

Minister Santos made the announcement at 14:00 local time (19:00 GMT), saying that army agents had infiltrated the insurgents guarding the hostages in the jungles of Guaviare.

According to Santos, the operation codenamed ”Jaque” (Check, as in chess) involved infiltrating the hostages' guards, led by ”Cesar”.

”The hostages were divided into three groups, so the guerrillas were persuaded to bring them all together at a point where they would supposedly be transported to the south of the country to be under the direct orders of Alfonso Cano,” the rebels' top leader, Santos said.

”It was arranged that the hostages would be picked up at a predetermined site by helicopters belonging to a non-existent humanitarian organisation, and for Cesar himself and another member of his staff to travel with the captives to personally hand them over to Alfonso Cano,” he said.

”But the helicopters, which were really army aircraft,” picked up the hostages and took them to San José, the capital of Guaviare, he said.

The U.S. government, which funds the Colombian government's counterinsurgency efforts, was quick to say that it had nothing to do with the military rescue operation.

The guerrillas ”should understand that they are out of manoeuvering room,” said former Senator Luis Eladio Pérez, a hostage held for nearly seven years before he was released unilaterally by the FARC in February, thanks to the mediation of Chávez and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba.

”I was with all 15 (hostages rescued Wednesday) for the past four years, so I am extremely happy that they have all been set free,” Pérez said.

”But we demand the release of our companions who have been left behind. We cannot rejoice over military successes” until they are all free, he said, referring to another 30 people still in captivity.

Claudia Rugeles, the wife of Alan Jara, former governor of the central province of Meta, who is still being held by the FARC, expressed ”happiness in my home and in my heart,” but also concern ”for those who are still in the jungle. May God protect them so that at some point they may return alive.”

Jara was seized from a United Nations van in Meta in July 2001.

Patricia Nieto, the wife of the only regional lawmaker who survived a mysterious shootout between the FARC and an unidentified military force in June 2007, in which 11 of his fellow-congressmen from the western province of Valle del Cauca were slain, expressed fear because ”military rescue attempts are not always successful.”

Pérez proposed that the guerrillas should be allowed to ”reenter civilian life by means of a political party,” an avenue that was tried in the 1980s and ended in the wholesale slaughter of the members of the leftwing Patriotic Union.

”This is a sensational opportunity; their freedom can lead us to a better future,” chimed in conservative politician and former minister Álvaro Leyva, who has had the most contact with the FARC since the failed peace process of the 1980s.

”It's excellent news and very heart-warming,” said Leyva, an official mediator in the search for a humanitarian prisoners for hostages swap. ”It was a major intelligence coup, which brought about the release of hostages without bloodshed, and will, I think, revive a host of initiatives.”

”We must listen to Ingrid Betancourt, and see what she proposes after all the celebration, because we must find a solution” to the longstanding armed conflict in Colombia, he said.

”While it is true that this military rescue operation has generated a great deal of joy, it must be seen in historical perspective. Solutions are needed for everything that's going on in Colombia,” said Leyva, referring to the guerrilla war, the far-right paramilitaries and the distortions they produce in the institutions of power.

The Committee for Ingrid Betancourt in France stressed that it would not rest until all those who are still captive are freed.

This is an opportunity to ”steer the country towards a happier path, which implies reaching a real peace and turning over the page” on this war, Leyva said.

”We are very glad,” said Carlos Lozano, the other official national mediator for hostage talks and the editor of the Communist weekly Voz.

”We have to think of those who were left behind,” he added. In spite of the military success, which fortunately shed no blood as has happened in previous armed rescue attempts, ”peaceful solutions must not be ruled out, including humanitarian exchange.”

”The most civilised solution is negotiation. Given the defeat suffered by the FARC in the present case, they should open themselves to common sense, realism, and solutions consistent with humanity, which is the most important thing,” said Lozano.

Marleny Orjuela, the head of Asfamipaz, an association of families of military and police personnel presently or formerly in the hands of the guerrillas, concurred.

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