Colombia hostage rescue: The audacious plot that freed world's most famous captive

Ingrid Betancourt, who was rescued from Farc rebels last week, never thought she would see her children again. Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá and Caroline Davies report on a daring plan by the army to dupe some of the world's most experienced kidnappers into giving up their prize

The shaky video footage is utterly compelling. Her hands bound crudely with plastic, Ingrid Betancourt, the most famous hostage in the world, gazes despondently at the ground before being guided aboard the Russian Mi-17 helicopter. As she takes a look at its crew her disappointment and anger is evident. This is not the international humanitarian mission she had hoped it would be.

After six years, the French-Colombian politician, 46, held captive by Marxist rebels deep in the Colombian jungle believes she is no nearer release. Her dismay is palpable as she climbs into the helicopter. 'My heart broke because I did not want another transfer, another time in captivity,' she recalled.

Once again, it seemed, her captors had duped her and the 14 hostages being held alongside her. Three and a half minutes later that same blurry video shows her eyes wide with joy and utter astonishment. 'Oh my God!' she screams incredulously into the camera. 'Thank you so much. God! Thank you so much. We never thought this would happen,' she weeps as she hugs fellow captive Colombian soldier William Perez, 36.

They are extraordinary images, released by a triumphant Colombian government, and capturing in a few minutes the despair, trickery and finally the sheer euphoria of an unprecedented rescue operation that will go down in history for its audacity and effectiveness.

The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) had been deceived - hustled into giving up their most prized possessions. Thehostages, including Betancourt, kidnapped during her campaign for Colombia's presidency, three US defence contractors and 11 Colombian police and army officers, were Farc's best bargaining chips with Colombia's President Alváro Uribe, as it sought the release of its own prisoners and attempted to maintain its grip on Colombia's cocaine trade. But Operation Checkmate - months in the planning - had freed them without a shot being fired or a drop of blood spilt.

Today Betancourt, kidnapped in February 2002, is free 'to breathe the air of France', where she was flown after Wednesday's rescue and reunited with the son and daughter she has never before seen as adults - Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19. 'To feel them, to touch them, to hold them in my arms,' she wept as she clutched their hands to her breast 'They're fantastic. They're beautiful'.

There has been speculation that the Colombians paid $20m ransom to Farc for these high-profile releases. The rumours are emphatically denied by Colombia's Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who argues that such a sum would have been a 'bargain', given offers of $100m had previously been made. In fact there is no evidence to suggest that Operation Checkmate was anything other than what the Colombian authorities say it was.

Plans for the mission stretch back to May 2007 when police officer John Pinchao emerged from the jungle, weak and disorientated, 17 days after escaping his Farc captors. He brought with him crucial details of a hostage camp, giving Colombia's military intelligence enough to plant a mole in Farc's top ranks. The plans were further shaped when Farc released six hostages in January, handing them over to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The aim was to persuade the Farc leader holding Betancourt - Gerardo Aguilar Ramirez, known as César - that the hostages he held were to be moved to another hostage camp by helicopter, with the help of an international humanitarian NGO, so that negotiations could begin for their release.

The Colombians decided to pose as an NGO similar to the one used in the Chavez handovers. Information from previous freed hostages allowed them to map out where Betancourt and the others were being held.

Then, in February army operatives on the Apaporis River, which runs through the jungles of south-western Colombia, spied the three Americans who had been captured when their Cessna crashed during a drug surveillance mission in February 2003. The hostages were bathing on the opposite bank of the muddy waters. But it was deemed too risky for a commando raid. Frustrating though it was, the decision was made to wait.

There had been grave concerns over the health of the hostages, particularly Betancourt, the daughter of a Colombian ambassador to Paris who has dual nationality. A video released during her captivity showed her looking fragile and extremely thin, with her eyes downcast. She appeared to be fading away into the jungle, all hope gone. Thousands of photographs of her children were dropped from a plane flown over the thick jungle in the hope some would find her and boost her morale. But she never saw them.

'I tried to dream, of running with my children,' she said on her release. 'But then I would wake up and feel the chain around my neck'.

All the hostages wore chains, thick and heavy around their necks. For the first three years she was chained day and night. 'I tried to wear them with dignity, even if I felt that was unbearable'. For her last three years, she wore them only at night. 'If the guards were in a bad mood, they pulled them tight around our necks. If they were in a good mood, they would leave a little breathing room.' Boots had to be placed on one side of the hammock so the rebels could collect them at night. 'They were afraid we would try to escape if we had boots,' she explained.

Day after day the hostages endured the same routine. Woken at 4am, she would pray with a wooden rosary she crafted herself during her captivity. 'You need tremendous spirituality to stop yourself falling into the abyss,' she says. Then she and the others would listen to the small transistor radios they were allowed to keep, willing there to be messages from their loved ones. Breakfast was either hot chocolate or coffee with corn cakes. 'After that we had to try to figure out what to do for the following 11½ hours of the day,' she recalled. Their diet was mainly rice and other carbohydrates - no fruit, no vegetables.

She was routinely humiliated, forced to urinate while being watched by her guards - many of whom were female. Washing her hair in the river was hard. 'The men were ready in 10 minutes, but after 25 minutes if I was still washing they would order me from the river. I had to be careful keeping the towel around me while dressing.'

Worst of all were the long jungle treks as the camp moved regularly to evade detection. If a helicopter was heard overhead they were expected to pack their few possessions immediately and leave without talking. 'The marches were the worst thing. You get up at 4am, and pack in the dark, and march in the wet and in the humidity,' she recalled.

She found the jungle too much. 'No sun, no sky, a green ceiling, a wall of trees, a lot of insects each more dreadful than the next. I walked with a hat pulled down over my ears because all sorts of things fall on your head, ants that bite you, insects, lice, ticks. You have to wear gloves because everything in the jungle bites. Each time you try to grab on to something so that you don't fall, you've put your hand on a tarantula, you've put your hand on a thorn, or a leaf that bites. It's an absolutely hostile world, dangerous, with dangerous animals,' she said. 'But the most dangerous of all was man, those behind me with their big guns.'

Then there was the illness. All were susceptible to foot infections from walking, bootless, in the wet jungle mud. Tropical parasites included a flesh-eating disease. And there was malaria. At one point Betancourt was so ill - she may have contracted hepatitis - that William Perez, who had studied nursing while in the military, had to feed her with a spoon. At on point in her illness, after going without food for two weeks, she told Perez that she wanted to die.

After six years of this daily torture, it is easy to see how all hope could be lost. But one month ago, the authorities decided the time was right to put the NGO plan into action. Farc was in disarray, fractured by infighting, desertions, killings and captures. Communication between its nomadic camps was 'medieval', facilitated largely by couriers ferrying dispatches through the jungle. One disgruntled member had already agreed to spearhead the rescue mission. George Bush gave his backing.

César was told to present his hostages to the new Farc chief Alfonso Cano at a location somewhere between La Paz and Tomachipan. On Tuesday two helicopters - painted white and disguised as those of a fictitious NGO - left a military base in an Andean mountain valley and settled in a jungle clearing. One would remain out of sight, ready to go into action if the rescue was compromised. The other would fly down to the agreed rendezvous the following day.

On board were Colombian military intelligence agents, plus a doctor and two nurses. The rescuers included an agent, pretending to be Italian, another supposedly from the Middle East, and an Australian with English 'identical to Crocodile Dundee'. Two others wore Che Guevara T-shirts.

As in previous NGO handovers, the group was accompanied by a TV crew of two - also Colombian commandos.

At midday on Wednesday the 'transfer' began. César led his hostages to the helicopter on a grassy clearing on the edge of a coca field. The video shows dozens of camouflage-clad Farc rebels standing around the field at ease, their assault rifles slung across their backs, as they were filmed by the supposed TV crew. The hostages, meanwhile, had hoped the helicopter was from a French and Swiss delegation which, they heard on the radio, was in the country to seek contacts with the Farc. 'I thought one of us might be released,' said Betancourt.

Those overseeing the rescue were able to monitor its progress through a beacon and microphones aboard the helicopter. A US surveillance plane was flying, unnoticed, overhead.

The hostages suspected nothing. Betancourt noted the Che T-shirts, and was unimpressed when one of the team tried to speak to her in French that sounded like 'gibberish'. 'I thought' This is just the Farc." she said. 'This is not an international mission.'

The helicopter was on the ground for a tense 22 minutes, then took off. What exactly happened on board was, apparently, not filmed because, say the Colombians, the cameraman joined in as the two rebels were overpowered. Betancourt recalled: 'Suddenly, something happened. I didn't notice quite what. All of a sudden I saw the commander who had been in charge of us for so many years, who so often humiliated us and was such a despot - naked and handcuffed on the floor'. All she could hear was one of the 'mission' agents shouting 'We are from the army. You're free'. The video then captures the look of incredulity on the faces of those on board - some of whom had been held for 11 years. They tear off their restraints, and jump with joy so hard Betancourt feared the helicopter 'would drop out of the sky'.

The Colombians admit that they pay millions for information on Farc, and, ultimately that contributed to Operation Checkmate's success. But army chief General Mario Montoya insists not 'a single cent' was paid in this case. And while the Colombians did receive support from US surveillance planes, drones and satellites, the mission was conceived and executed solely by Colombians.

Had it gone wrong, there was a plan B. The Colombian military had 39 helicopters and 2,000 troops on standby to surround the hostage holders and try to persuade them to surrender peacefully.

There will be consequences. Colombian military operatives are still posing as Farc rebels in the jungle, and it is likely there will now be a vicious purge. 'A lot of people are going to die there,' said Montoya. 'But the hostages are free'.

The jungle years

24 February 2002 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) abduct Ingrid Betancourt as she is campaigning for the Colombian presidency.

23 October 2002 Farc demands the release of all imprisoned members as a condition for freeing hostages.

July 2002 Farc release a video confirming Betancourt is still alive.

July 2003 French-led rescue operation fails to contact Farc.

June 2006 Farc leader Raul Reyes says Betancourt is doing well 'within the environment she finds herself in'.

30 November 2007 Betancourt appears gaunt in new video.

28 March 2008 Colombian government offers cash and reduced jail terms to rebels in exchange for Betancourt.

2 July 2008: Betancourt rescued.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá and Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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