Colombia: Hostages reveal details of 'sadism' and executions

· Betancourt haunted by thoughts of suicide
· Doubts over rescue amid claims of ransom

Harrowing details of the captivity of Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages in Colombia emerged yesterday, at the same time as doubts surfaced over the official version of their daring rescue.

The French-Colombian politician and the captives freed in Wednesday's military operation described casual sadism, inhumane conditions and even killings in the jungle camps of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Betancourt said she was often chained to a tree and haunted by thoughts of killing herself during her six-year ordeal. "Death is a hostage's most faithful companion. We lived with death ... and the seduction of suicide was always with us."

Another former hostage, army nurse William Pérez, said that at one point Betancourt was so depressed that she spent two weeks barely eating. "I had to spoonfeed her, like a child, saying 'this spoonful is for Mélanie [her daughter], and this one for Lorenzo [her son]'," Pérez said.

The bleak descriptions confirmed some of her supporters' fears about her captivity. The celebrations were also overshadowed by a claim that a $20m (£10m) ransom was paid and the audacious rescue was to some extent stage-managed. Washington, Paris and Bogotá denied the allegation.

Betancourt, 46, told French TV she had been treated abominably. "I wouldn't have given the treatment I had to an animal, perhaps not even to a plant." If the guerrillas were in a bad mood, they would tighten the chain around her neck so it was difficult to breathe, she said.

The hostages' chains used to come off at 5am when radio programmes began transmitting messages from relatives. Coffee was served and then they lined up for breakfast. "After that we had to try to figure out what to do for the following 11-and-a-half hours of the day. During captivity, at some point no one has anything left to say to each other - everyone just sits in silence," said Betancourt.

The former presidential candidate fell sick from jungle maladies and would often vomit when she ate. She bathed in rivers fully dressed because male guards would stare. Asked if she had been raped, she said: "I have had painful experiences ... but I don't want to talk about this here, now at this time of happiness."

Another former hostage, Armando Castellanos, one of 11 Colombian soldiers and police who, with Betancourt and three US military contractors, were plucked from the jungle by helicopter, said that the rebels killed a police officer because he had "psychological problems".

Luis Hernando Peña Bonilla, kidnapped in 1998, was shot five years ago because the guerrillas found his behaviour unpredictable. They also shot his dog, Laika, which had seldom left his side. The news devastated his mother, Leonor.

Colombia's authorities have continued to bask in the euphoria of delivering a spectacular blow to the insurgency.

The Farc commander reportedly duped into handing the 15 hostages to commandos was displayed looking crestfallen. Gerardo Aguilar Ramírez, alias César, believed the helicopter would take him and the prisoners to the Farc's leader, Alfonso Cano, but instead he was overpowered. Bruises and cuts to his face testified to the scuffle. César faces a criminal trial and possible extradition to the US.

A second rebel, Alexander Farfán, alias Gafas, also captured in the operation, did not show signs of a struggle. Last night, video footage emerged showing the moment the hostages realised they were free. The pictures showed them being marched, still unawares, towards the helicopter. Then it cut to scenes of them embracing one another, Betancourt sobbing with joy.

Doubts about the official version of the rescue surfaced in Switzerland where a public radio station quoted an unidentified source - "close to the events, reliable and tested many times in recent years" - saying $20m was paid to the guerrillas. "It was not a negotiation with the Farc directly but with a person who is very important in that organisation, commander César," Frederich Blassel, a journalist with the Swiss station, told Colombian radio. The reported suggested that a wife of one of the guards - possibly César - had acted as a go-between after being arrested by the security forces.

The armed forces commander, Fredy Padilla, said Bogotá made no payment. "I deny that the government of Colombia has paid a single cent for this operation."


Rory Carroll and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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