The former hostage Ingrid Betancourt has arrived in France after being held captive for six years by leftist rebels in the Colombian jungle. The French-Colombian politician was greeted by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy at a military air base near Paris. Mr Sarkozy, who made Ms Betancourt's release a top priority, has invited her whole family to a party at the Elysee presidential palace. The hero's welcome is being shown live on French television. Reunited with her son and daughter a day after her jungle rescue by the Colombian army, Ms Betancourt left Bogota for France yesterday. Speaking to French radio before she boarded the plane, the 46-year-old former presidential candidate said she was chained up night-and-day for three years by her rebel captors, with only her Catholic faith as a solace.
"I was in chains all the time, 24 hours a day, for three years," she said. "I tried to wear those chains... with dignity, even if I felt that it was unbearable." On Wednesday, Ms Betancourt was rescued, along with three US hostages and 11 Colombians, from the grip of Farc rebels by the Colombian army. Ms Betancourt said she had suffered "moments of real crisis, hardship and abuse". Asked whether she was tortured, she replied: "Yes, yes". She said she saw her captors lapsing into "diabolical behaviour."
"It was so monstrous that I think they themselves were disgusted. I think you need tremendous spirituality to stop yourself falling into the abyss," she said, adding that she decided in the helicopter flying her to safety not to reveal the most "sordid" details of her ordeal. Yesterday, Ms Betancourt had a powerfully emotional reunion at Bogota airport with her daughter Melanie, 22, and son Lorenzo, 19, who waged a relentless campaign for their mother's release, making her a cause célèbre in France.
"I thank God for this moment. These are my little ones, my pride, my reason for living, my light, my moon, my stars, for them I wanted to leave the jungle, to see them again," she said. Ms Betancourt's children were young teenagers when she was seized in February 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency. They were flown to Bogota together with her ex-husband, Fabrice Delloye, on a French presidential plane.
France celebrated the news of her release. She is expected to be treated to a rapturous welcome in Paris, the city where she grew up, studied and raised her children.
A fervent Catholic who called her release a "miracle of the Virgin Mary", Ms Betancourt has also been invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI next week. "It is a meeting that one cannot pass up," she said. On the flight back to Paris, an exhausted Ms Betancourt is said to have withdrawn with her children to rest in a private suite at the front of the aircraft. Mr Sarkozy's personal doctor, who was travelling on the flight, said her state of health was "satisfactory" but that she would undergo in-depth medical exams once in Paris.
Video footage earlier this year showed Ms Betancourt looking frail and gaunt and she was reported be suffering from a host of ailments including hepatitis. Ms Betancourt has urged Colombia and the international community to keep working to free the hundreds of other hostages still held by Colombia's Farc rebels, Latin America's most powerful left-wing insurgency. The three US military contractors, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, released in the raid were also to be reunited with their families in Texas. They were said to be in good shape and high spirits.
And in Bogota, the seven Colombian soldiers and four police officers rescued some after more than 10 years in captivity received rapturous welcomes at ceremonies complete with mariachi bands. The rescue mission was a huge triumph in the Colombian government's long battle against the leftist rebel army. In the humbled rebels' first reaction since the rescue, a news outlet close to Farc said they would be open to peace talks with the Alvaro Uribe government.
* AFP with AP