PARIS // Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician held captive by guerrillas in the Amazon jungle, woke up a free woman on Thursday for the first time in more than six years. Her rescue in what was described as a "perfect" military operation sparked a wave of emotion and relief in both Colombia and France, where her plight had become a cause célèbre. Colombian commandos carried out the audacious mission to liberate Ms Betancourt, 46, and 14 other hostages from heavily armed guerrillas without a single shot being fired.
In Paris, motorists hooted their horns as overjoyed supporters gathered outside the City Hall where a banner with the word "Free" was added to a portrait of Ms Betancourt installed during her imprisonment. Ms Betancourt's daughter Mélanie, 22, said the family had "woken up from a nightmare". "This is the moment we have been waiting for for so long," she said in a broadcast from the presidential palace in Paris, her voice trembling with emotion. Her brother Lorenzo, 19, added: "We have won a struggle for freedom. Now I'll see my mother again. It's one of the greatest moments of my life."
As her children prepared to fly to Colombia from their home in Paris, Ms Betancourt, wearing a camouflage jacket and hat, stepped off the plane in Bogota to the strains of the Colombian national anthem. She walked into the arms of her waiting mother, Yolanda. The two women kissed and clutched each other; the love and relief was almost palpable. Then they and the other 14 released hostages knelt to pray with a local priest. Afterwards, Ms Betancourt smiled as she was handed a microphone. "I have waited so long for this moment; I hope I will be able to speak," she said.
In a long and unscripted address she must have gone over many times in her head during the six years, four months and nine days of her captivity, she thanked those who fought for her release, including the Colombian military - "the army of my homeland" - and Alvaro Uribe, the country's president.
Describing the rescue operation as "perfect", Ms Betancourt said she woke at 4am on Wednesday - her 2,322nd day in captivity - and prayed and hoped as she did every morning that it would be the day she would be freed. Her hopes were dashed, she said, when she listened to her mother's regular daily radio broadcast and learnt she was going to France, her daughter was going to China and her former husband was also out of Paris. "When I heard this I thought, perhaps not today."
The rescue that followed a few hours later was straight out of a Hollywood thriller. During the five-month Operation Jaque ("check" in Spanish), government soldiers had pinpointed the whereabouts of Farc guerrillas holding the hostages to the Amazonian region of Guaviare in the south. They infiltrated the group, then tricked them. The guerrillas were persuaded to hand the 15 hostages, including Ms Betancourt, to what they thought was a humanitarian organisation to be transferred to another Farc commander. Undercover Colombian commandos pretending to be from a non-government organisation flew a white helicopter into the rebels' jungle camp. Ms Betancourt said her "heart was in pieces" when she learnt they were being transferred. When she saw the supposed humanitarian workers wearing T-shirts picturing Ché Guevara, she was convinced they were rebels.
"They were dressed like madmen. Who are they? When I looked closely and saw they had T-shirts of Ché Guevara I said to myself this is not a humanitarian group," she said. The hostages were lined up in single file and marched on to the helicopter, but shortly after it took off one of the "humanitarian workers" told the captives: "We're the Colombian army and you are free." "The helicopter almost fell out of the sky! We jumped for joy, we cried, we kissed, we couldn't believe it. It was a miracle," Ms Betancourt said.
Ms Betancourt's plight made her a heroine in France, where she was viewed as a modern-day Joan of Arc, and in Colombia where, as a politician, she campaigned against the drug trade, corruption and Farc, which has waged war on successive Colombian governments since the 1960s. She was born in Bogota on Dec 25 1961, the daughter of a Colombian diplomat and a former Miss Colombia beauty queen. Ms Betancourt and her elder sister, Astrid, grew up in Paris after her father was posted to the French capital. She studied at the celebrated Institute of Political Sciences (Sciences-Po) and became a French citizen after marrying Fabrice Delloye, a French diplomat. The marriage ended in divorce.
In the 1990s, Ms Betancourt returned to Colombia and was elected to parliament. She sent her children to live with their father in New Zealand after receiving death threats. In 2001, she announced she was standing for president but on Feb 23 2002, after ignoring warnings not to visit a Farc stronghold, she was kidnapped. There followed years of false hopes, botched rescue attempts, hunger strikes and fruitless diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing. In July last year, Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected president, sent two French diplomats to Colombia to establish if Ms Betancourt was still alive. They returned with no news. In November, a video of a gaunt Ms Betancourt found on three captured Farc rebels confirmed she was still alive but caused international concern that her health was failing - reportedly from hepatitis B - and she was becoming increasingly depressed.
In a smuggled letter to her mother, one of several published in a book in December, she described how she was losing hope of seeing her children, including stepson Sebastian, again. "Tell them they are my source of joy in this harsh captivity," she wrote. "Everything here has two sides: joy comes with pain, happiness is sad, love cures and opens new wounds; to remember is to live and to die anew. "For years I was unable to think of the children. I would feel as though I was smothering, that I couldn't breathe. And now I can hear [my children on the radio] and feel more joy than pain. I sustain myself with the images I keep in my memory. I sing 'Happy Birthday' to them on every birthday. If [my captors] bring a cookie or some dish of rice and beans, I make believe it is a cake and celebrate their birthdays in my heart.
"If I were to die today, I would go satisfied with life, thanking God for my children. "Over many years I have thought that as long as I live, as long as I breathe, I must keep up hope. I no longer have the same strength and it is now difficult for me to keep on believing. And so I don't want to say goodbye." News of Ms Betancourt's release was relayed to Mr Sarkozy on Wednesday night. At 11.30pm he gave a televised address at the Elysée Palace surrounded by Ms Betancourt's family and Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister. "Today sees the end of an ordeal that lasted for more than six years," Mr Sarkozy said."We are proud of Ingrid's courage. We are happy for her." Melanie Delloye-Betancourt thanked Mr Sarkozy, who had made securing her mother's release one of his priorities from the moment he took office last June. "Words cannot express what our family feels tonight," she said. "Things started to change and today Mummy is here ? it's as if we are waking up from a nightmare." She urged that other hostages in other jungles not be forgotten. Hervé Marot, who headed the French support committee for the liberation of Ms Betancourt, said after hearing the news: "There is nothing but happiness here. After years of uncertainty and discouragement, hope has won out." Yesterday, Mr Kouchner and Ms Betancourt's children flew to Bogota for an emotional reunion. Analysts said the rescue mission was a fatal blow to the Farc. Several of the group's leaders have been killed or captured in recent military operations, others have surrendered, and there are reports that members are deserting. Now it has lost its most valuable hostages: the bargaining chips it hoped would force concessions from the government of Colombia. "The Farc will never be able to recover from this," said Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst and head of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota. Immediately after her release, Ms Betancourt announced she intended to resume political campaigning. "Right now I am a soldier of peace in the service of my country," she said. "My freedom is a miracle. A miracle from God helped by the Colombian army." * The National