Franco-Colombian ex-hostage Ingrid Betancourt was finally reunited with her family Thursday after six years in captivity. The former FARC hostage's children Mélanie and Lorenzo Dolloye arrived in Bogota along with Betancourt's ex-husband, sister and French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner.
“Mélanie is a young woman now and Lorenzo a young man,” Betancourt told reporters as she tearfully welcomed her children."The last time I saw my children, Lorenzo was very small ... I could lift him up."
For Lorenzo Delloye, their mother’s liberation was a moment of victory. “When I first heard the news, I realised, I’ll finally see my mother and that we had won. We’re going to continue fighting for the liberation of other (FARC) hostages,” Lorenzo said. “The entire family had been waiting for this moment and I’m astonished to see that she’s the same woman – a strong woman.”
Betancourt called on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s President Correa to improve ties with the Colombian President and urged other leaders in the region to react and help free other hostages.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner thanked President Uribe and those who contributed to Betancourt’s release. “It’s a miracle to see Ingrid here but I can’t help forget the other hostages who’re still being held by the FARC. This is a strong family and they must help liberate the others,” Kouchner told reporters in Bogota.
Meanwhile in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s top aide said France played no role in the Colombian mission to rescue Betancourt and 14 other hostages. “In this specific operation, the French did not take part," Claude Gueant told France 3 television. "We learned of the outcome 15 minutes before Colombian press agencies began reporting it."
Freedom at last
Freed on Wednesday, Betancourt gave a lengthy news conference upon her arrival in Bogota. She appeared in good health, laughing with Colombian soldiers and the other hostages freed during the operation.
“I’d like to thank God and all those who thought of me, who kept me in their hearts and accompanied me. To all the Colombians, the French who kept us in their hearts,” she said in a press conference held on the runway of the military airport in Bogota. “The operation conducted by the army of my country, the Colombian army, was absolutely flawless,” she then said in French.
She also had a message for France, which she delivered in French. “Thank you my sweet France,” she said. “Thank you for accompanying me all these years. (…) I’m Colombian but I’m also French, my heart is split.”
Betancourt thanked French President Nicolas Sarkozy “who fought for me with my family,” but also former French President Jacques Chirac “who extended his hand at a time when fighting for Colombian hostages was politically inappropriate.”
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe praised the army; in a press conference late Wednesday night; for carrying out the difficult rescue operation “without a drop of blood or a single gun shot.” “This is an intelligence operation comparable to the most famous epics in history,” he added.
In Paris, President Sarkozy, with Betancourt’s sister and children at his side, thanked “President Uribe, the Colombian executive and the army for this highly successful operation.”
The three American hostages landed early on Thursday in San Antonio, Texas. Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, all defence contractors, were captured in 2003 after their light aircraft crashed in the jungle while on a counter-narcotics operation.
The carefully planned military operation, code named 'Check' after the game of chess, involved the infiltration of the first circle of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, Marxist), Colombian officials explained.
Thanks to its infiltrators, the army transmitted a false order from the FARC’s leader to the hostage keepers. This false order led to hostages being gathered together and to them being transferred to the south of the country.
“Then a helicopter, which belonged in reality to the national army and had on board the members of the secret services, rescued the hostages from the site where they were held near the department of Guaviare,” explained Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
Cesar, the FARC’s lead hostage keeper, and the guerrillas were immediately “neutralised and the hostages are now free,” Santos said.
The liberation of Ingrid Betancourt marks a new development in the dark history of the FARC's history.
The guerilleros have been showing increasing signs of weakness since the beginning of the year. Seven members from their staff were killed in March, including their historic leader Manuel Marulanda.
In the last months, the guerilla has had to face something of a haemorrhage. Since the beginning of the year, 1,300 fighters have deserted, including on of its emblematic leaders, Nelly Avina, a.k.a Karina. The FARC who boasted 16,000 members in 2002 would be less than half that number today, according to the Colombian army.