Rescued Betancourt Embraces Family

Three American hostages will reunite with their families today.


July 3, 2008 — -- When freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt saw the plane arrive with the son and daughter she hadn't seen for six years, she ran to the plane's stairway.

Moments later, she flung her arms around her now grown-up children, Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22.

"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, 46, was one of 15 hostages rescued from the Colombian jungle where they had been held by the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Betancourt, who was campaigning for president of Colombia when she was snatched, had been held captive for six years.

Liberated with her were three Americans who were grabbed more than five years ago when their drug surveillance plane crash landed in jungle controlled by FARC.

The Americans, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, set foot back on American soil near Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, Wednesday night.

In Texas, they will be treated for disease and injuries incurred from both the initial plane crash and the half decade they spent in captivity.

Betancourt, however, was the first to reunite with her family, and she joked during a news conference that she hoped her son's girlfriend would not get jealous over how much she would be hugging him.

"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's daughter said she was against the rescue operation because she thought it would cause bloodshed and possibly put her mother in more danger.

The operation, which succeeded without firing a shot, was described by Betancourt as "perfect."

The months-long operation succeeded by having elite Colombian officers infiltrate the group and convincing those holding the hostages that Betancourt and the others were to be moved.

Betancourt said when the helicopter landed she was hoping aid workers would be aboard but was dismayed to see men wearing Che Guevera T-shirts -- more rebels.

The rebels shoved the captives, their hands bound, onto a white unmarked MI-17 helicopter, believing they were being transferred to another guerrilla camp.

But after the helicopter lifted off the ground, she turned to see that the local rebel commander and been blindfolded, stripped and forced to lie on the floor.

Then came the unbelievable words: "We're the national army," said one of the crewmen. "You're free."

"The helicopter almost fell from the sky because we were jumping up and down, yelling, crying, hugging one another," Betancourt said.

The rebel commander, known by his alias Cesar, had been tricked into herding three groups of hostages to the pick-up location. Cesar believed he was delivering the hostages to FARC's leader for a possible prisoner swap.

After overpowering and arresting Cesar and another rebel on board, the 58 rebels on the ground were allowed to go free, armed forces chief Freddy Padilla told Colombian radio.

The Americans are expected to be reunited with their families today.

Marc Gonsalves's father was mowing his lawn at his Connecticut home when a neighbor ran over to tell him about the rescue operation.

"I didn't know how to stop my lawnmower," he said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."

"It's going to be nice to talk to him," Gonsalves told ABC News. "I want to hear his voice again. There are things I've been wanting to say for a long time, and it's going to be nice."

Though the White House was aware of the operation during it's planning stages, only Colombians were directly involved in the operation.

According to U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, there was "close cooperation" between Colombian and American officials, including an "exchange" of intelligence, equipment, training advice and experience from "other operations."

As part of that exchange of intelligence, according to a CNN report, it was American intelligence that pinpointed the location of the hostages and allowed the operation to move forward.

President Bush was reportedly joyful when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe gave him the good news in a phone call yesterday afternoon.

At the press conference Betancourt also took the opportunity to urge Colombian citizens, along with regional leaders, to keep fighting to free the estimated 700 hostages that remain in FARC camps throughout Colombia.

"Everybody has the right in the fight for freedom for others," Betancourt said. "This is fundamental. We need to continue fighting until there are no more captives in Colombia."

She asked foreign leaders by name, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to put pressure on FARC to free the hostages, but not to make the war in Colombia "stronger."

"We need to make a league of countries that are helping," Betancourt said. "The changes we need to make, we need to make through democracy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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