Many relatives of hostages have opposed rescue attempts, mindful of a botched 2003 operation in which rebels killed 10 hostages including a former defense minister when they heard helicopters approach. This time, there were no such mistakes.
Through orders the hostages' handlers believed came from top rebels, they had maneuvered three separate groups of hostages to a rallying point in eastern Colombia's wilds for Wednesday's helicopter pickup.
"The helicopter was on the ground for 22 minutes," said army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, "the longest minutes of my life."
The agents had led Cesar, the local commander overseeing the hostages, to believe he was taking them to supreme rebel leader Alfonso Cano to discuss a possible hostage swap. A French and Swiss envoy was reported in the country seeking a meeting with Cano, so the operation's timing was perfect.
"It was an extraordinary symphony in which everything went perfectly," Betancourt said.
She appeared thin but surprisingly healthy as she strode down the stairs of a military plane and held her mother in a long embrace.
A flight carrying the Americans -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- landed in Texas late Wednesday after being flown there directly. They were to reunite with their families and undergo tests and treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said the Americans were healthy and "very, very happy" but two suffered from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and were "looking forward to modern medical treatment."
President Alvaro Uribe, in a celebratory news conference flanked by the freed Colombian hostages, said he isn't interested in "spilling blood" and that he wants the FARC to know he seeks "a path to peace, total peace."
Although only Colombians were directly involved in the rescue, Brownfield said "close" American cooperation included intelligence, equipment and "training advice." He refused to give details.
The two rebels overpowered on the helicopters will face justice, officials said. But the 58 left behind on the ground were allowed to escape as a goodwill gesture, Padilla said.
"If I had given the order to fire on them they would almost certainly all have been killed," he said. Another 39 helicopters had been standing by, prepared to encircle the rebels and hostages if the rescue failed, Santos said.
Betancourt was abducted in February 2002 while she was campaigning for president. The Americans were captured a year later when their drug surveillance plane went down in rebel-held jungle. Some of the others had been held for a dozen years.
Betancourt, a dual French national who grew up in Paris, had become a cause celebre across Europe. The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had made Betancourt's liberation a priority of state, said Betancourt was expected to arrive in France on Friday.
Betancourt thanked Uribe, against whom she was running when she was kidnapped, and said he "has been a very good president."
However, she said, "I continue to aspire to serve Colombia as president."