A daring military rescue operation that relied on wits and deception, rather than force, succeeded today in freeing 15 hostages held by a guerrilla group in the Colombian jungle.
Those rescued included the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whose six-year hostage ordeal made her a cause celebre around the world, and three American military contractors, who were seized by FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas in 2003.
The operation was carried out by Colombian army troops with the advance knowledge and support of U.S. officials.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said army troops infiltrated the FARC rebels, who were holding the hostages as part of their long-running guerrilla war and terror campaign against the state.
The infiltrators convinced local FARC militants that they'd been ordered to fly the hostages to another location, Santos said. The hostages were loaded aboard a helicopter and the militants, realizing they were outwitted and surrounded, gave up without a fight.
Betancourt, the three American contractors, and 11 Colombian police and soldiers who'd been held with them were then flown to a Colombian military base.
Colombian officials said the three Americans boarded a flight back to the United States this evening. They are expected to land in Texas and be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Betancourt spoke to Colombian radio just hours later and called the rescue operation "absolutely impeccable." She said not a single shot was fired.
Though she was just one of many hostages taken by FARC over the years, Betancourt's case drew the most international attention. She was a high-profile politician running for president of Colombia when she was kidnapped during a campaign stop on Feb. 23, 2002.
Betancourt held dual citizenship in France, where her former husband and one of their two grown children live, and they led a tireless campaign to win her freedom. Her son Lorenzo called news of her rescue, "if true, the most beautiful news of my life."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made Betancourt's case a foreign policy priority, said late today that she was in good health after her ordeal. However, she appeared extremely thin and frail in videotapes taken during her years of captivity, and was reported to be suffering from hepatitis and other untreated ailments.
A letter she wrote in 2007 conveyed the despair of her condition: "I am tired of suffering ... Every day is the same hell as the one before." She said the suffering her kidnapping was causing her children "makes death seem like a sweet option."
At one point, a former hostage said, Betancourt was kept chained to a tree after trying to escape.
The three American contractors were taken hostage about a year after Betancourt. Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell worked for Northrop Grumman and were flying an anti-narcotics surveillance mission when their plane went down in the jungle. They were captured by FARC in February 2003; at the time of their rescue, they were believed to be the longest-held American captives currently in the world.
Gonsalves' father George got word of the rescue today at his home in Hebron, Conn. He called it "great, great, great" news. The last sign of his son had been a "proof-of-life" video FARC released in November.
After the rescue operation was complete, the White House said President Bush called and congratulated President Uribe of Colombia.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino tells ABC News that the administration was "aware of the operation from its planning stages. We supported the operation." She declined to discuss the details of that support.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain happened to be in Colombia earlier in the day to talk about trade and the war on drugs. ABC News has learned that McCain was informed the day before that a rescue operation was being planned. He was already aboard his flight out of the country when he got word that the mission was successful.