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BETANCOURT - RESCUE

Many questions, few answers on US role in liberation

4 min

The Bush administration admitted Friday to providing some assistance to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe despite an earlier declaration by Colombian Defence Minister that the operation was 100% Colombian.

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The United States on Thursday hinted it had cooperated with the Colombian government's daring jungle rescue of 15 hostages held by leftist FARC rebels but withheld details on the extent of its role.

The hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, were freed Wednesday by Colombian soldiers posing as guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a bold and bloodless operation that shocked even the long-time captives.

The rescue hinged on an army intelligence agent who infiltrated the FARC and tricked the rebels into believing their top leader had sent a helicopter to pick up the hostages.

The White House said it was aware of the plan but did not give the go-ahead, while military officials praised Colombia for the successful mission.

"We were aware in its planning stages, but this was an operation that was conceived by the Colombians and executed by the Colombians with our full support," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

"But they did not need a green light from us," she said.

Perino implied that Washington had provided intelligence and even operational help -- while insisting that Bogota would have to decide how much of the US role to reveal.

"We'd also been working with the Colombian government ever since the hostages were taken in order to try to free them," she said. "I'm not able to go into any specifics."

"I think that if the Colombians want to provide more in terms of the information that was provided in terms of intelligence, or operational help, I think I'll let them decide if they want to do that," said Perino.

US ambassador to Bogota William Brownfield told CNN that Washington had provided "technical support" to the operation.

However, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos insisted it was a "100 percent Colombian" effort that "will no doubt go down in history for its audacity."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman stressed Colombia's leadership in the planning and execution of the rescue, and declined to comment on US intelligence-sharing.

"We've had a longstanding relationship with the Colombian government that includes both military cooperation as well as information sharing but this rescue operation was Colombian-planned, Colombian-led and Colombian-executed," Whitman told reporters.

"I don't comment on intelligence, I never have, but we do have a strong, not only government-to-government relationship but a military relationship, that does include a certain amount of cooperation and information-sharing," he said.

"But beyond that I don't want to detract from the fact that this was a Colombian operation."

The top US military officer for Latin America, Admiral Jim Stavridis, head of United States Southern Command, praised the "dedication, professionalism and bravery of the Colombian military and security forces engaged in this successful operation."

He said that the rescue of Americans Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, who were seized by Colombian rebels as they conducted an anti-drug mission for the US Defense Department in February 2003, had been "a priority of this command since the day they were illegally captured by the FARC."

Southern Command gave no details on US involvement in Wednesday's rescue specifically, but released a series of figures that showed US efforts over the five years since the men were abducted.

It said it conducted 3,600 intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance sorties, devoted 35 full-time personnel to the effort and spent 250 million dollars on "direct and indirect and hostage recovery operations."

The three men were flown from Colombia at a US military base in Texas before dawn Thursday where they underwent medical checks before reuniting with their families.

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which employed the three, said it was "ecstatic" to hear of the release and said the men were "undergoing extensive medical evaluation."

"We extend our heartfelt appreciation to the many men and women of the Colombian and US governments who have worked so hard for so many years," it said in a statement.

Betancourt, who was reunited with family Thursday, said the hostages did not know that rebels who had come to move them to a new hideout were Colombian soldiers in disguise.

It was only when they were in the air aboard a helicopter that the chief of operations told the hostages: "We are the national army and you are all free," said Betancourt, who had been campaigning for the presidency when she was nabbed in 2002.
 

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