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Colombian Forces Free Ingrid Betancourt, 14 Others

By Brian Wagner
Miami

Colombian Military Frees Betancourt, 14 Other Hostages

Colombian officials say they have rescued 15 hostages held by leftist rebels, including a former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors.

Colombia's Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the hostages were in good condition following the operation in the southeastern department of Guaviare.

Santos said the rescue involved intelligence officials who had infiltrated the rebel unit in charge of the hostages. He said the rescue operation was launched when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were planning to transport the hostages by helicopter.

Santos said the hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and 11 members of Colombia's security forces.

Betancourt was seized in 2002, while she was campaigning in rural Colombia where rebel forces were known to be active. One year later, rebels seized the three Americans - Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell - after their plane crashed during a drug surveillance flight south of Bogota.

The governments of France and Venezuela recently launched new efforts to negotiate with rebels for the release of Betancourt and other high-profile hostages. This year, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez helped win the release of six Colombian politicians, including former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas, who was seized along with Betancourt.

Betancourt and the three Americans were among some 40 high-profile hostages the rebels were holding in an effort to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Colombia's government.

President Bush called Mr. Uribe to congratulate him.

Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra says the rescue operation is major blow to the leftist group.

"It demonstrates two things," said Eduardo Gamarra. "One that the FARC appears to be really in a state of disarray, and two it reflects the degree of preparation and intensity the Colombian government has put into this."

U.S. defense officials say the Colombians "planned, led and executed" the rescue, but the United States helped transport the freed hostages to Bogota after the operation.

ENDS

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