Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt embraced her children for the first time in six years Thursday, saying the thought of them helped her stay alive until a daring rescue plucked her and 14 other hostages from the jungle.
"Nirvana, paradise -- that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt said, fighting back tears as her son reached over to kiss her. "It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle."
Betancourt raced to the stairway of the French government plane that flew her children to Bogota, throwing her arms around Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22.
"The last time I saw my son, Lorenzo was a little kid and I could carry him around," she said. "I told them, they're going to have to put up with me now, because I'm going to be stuck to them like chewing gum."
Betancourt, 46, was airlifted to freedom Wednesday in an audacious operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over their most prized hostages -- including three U.S. military contractors -- without firing a shot.
The stunning caper involved months of intelligence gathering, dozens of helicopters on standby and a strong dose of deceit: The rebels shoved the captives, their hands bound, onto a white unmarked MI-17 helicopter, believing they were being transferred to another guerrilla camp.
Looking at helicopter's crew, some wearing Che Guevara shirts, Betancourt reasoned they weren't aid workers, as she'd expected -- but rebels. This was just another indignity -- the helicopter "had no flag, no insignia." Angry and upset, she refused a coat they offered as they told her she was going to a colder climate.
But not long after the group was airborne, Betancourt turned around and saw the local commander, alias Cesar, a man who had tormented her for four years, blindfolded and stripped naked on the floor.
Then came the unbelievable words: "We're the national army," said one of the crewmen. "You're free."
The helicopter crew were soldiers in disguise. Cesar and the other guerrilla aboard had been persuaded to hand over their pistols, then overpowered.
"The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another," Betancourt said.
The mission -- in which many military intelligence agents infiltrated the top ranks of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC -- snatched from the the four foreigners who were its greatest bargaining chips, as well as 11 Colombian soldiers and police.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said it "will go into history for its audacity and effectiveness." He also acknowledged the risks: "If this had failed, I would have had to resign," he told Caracol Radio on Thursday.
It was the most serious blow ever dealt to the 44-year-old FARC, which is already reeling from the recent deaths of key commanders and thousands of defections after withering pressure from Colombia's U.S.-trained and advised armed forces.
Colombia could be "at the end of the end" of its long civil conflict, armed forces chief Freddy Padilla told Caracol Radio Thursday. "We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
But he warned that, even now, "the FARC has an enormous capacity for terrorism" and said, "the most difficult moments are yet to come."